Isobelle Waller

Freelance Journalist

Settling in Australia: Life for Asylum Seekers After Arrival

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Image via Flickr/Takver

Image via Flickr/Takver

“Most nights as I just lie in my bed, and I am filled with wonder by being warm, full and safe,” says Abraham Malual, dunking a ginger snap in his tea.

Upon meeting him, it’s hard to believe that he was ever a refugee. He’s a little late from work, and he takes his tea with milk and sugar. He smells like cologne and he smiles wide and proud. It’s even harder to believe that this man was stolen from his parents at 12 years old, and forced on a three month march to Ethiopia to escape a massacre in his homeland of South Sudan.

Supposing a refugee gets their ‘golden ticket’, their humanitarian visa, and is allowed into Australia, what happens next? How do they begin to reassemble their lives, to absorb a culture and language completely foreign to them? Despite their trauma, how can they lead a good life here, and provide a better life for their children? How can we help?

Abraham is a refugee from Africa, one of the so called “Lost Boys of Sudan”. In the 1980s, as Sudan was being torn apart in civil war, a rumour reached Abraham’s village. His parents were told that an army were invading from the north, intent on murdering every boy able to hold a gun – including those less than a year old. Groups of South Sudanese boys fled in masses on a 3 month march to Ethiopia, mostly over desert, seeking safety. The lost boys of Barrie’s “Peter Pan” were their namesake, but most of them were never reunited with their parents.

Though Abraham doesn’t detail a lot of his experiences, he says that “most of the boys who are three years old, four years old, up to eight, they lost their lives in the bush. They just couldn’t walk anymore.”

After civil war broke out in Ethiopia, the boys were forced out into the wilderness again, whereupon they started the long journey back to their homes in South Sudan.

“We were filled with hope, even though it was the wet season at that time. We came upon a river between Sudan and Ethiopia and it was overflowing. We didn’t have anything to help us, not canoes, nothing to help us cross. And suddenly the rebels from the other side started shooting at us. We had to jump into the water, and most of the boys were swept away. We lost about 12,000 boys that day.”

Eventually, the United Nations picked up survivors, and gave them safe passage to Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya. Abraham lived there for 16 years, in which time he married his wife and had two children with her.

Like many refugees, many of Abraham’s challenges still lay ahead of him, in the country which granted him asylum. Years of traumatic experiences aside, most refugees face deep cultural, economic and lingual barriers. Upon arrival, migrants on a humanitarian visa are supported until employed, 3 months of cultural education and no more than 510 hours of English lessons.

“For anyone who’s ever tried to learn a different language, they’ll understand that 500 hours only begins to scratch the surface,” says Jenny Forward, a migrant liaison officer at Hobart hospital. “I mean, it’s a whole different alphabet.”

Deep seated trauma is proven to affect a person’s concentration, which further undercuts their attempts to integrate into Australian society. Their problems are compounded by the fact that many of them have never been in a school environment before. For Abraham and others like him, the seemingly simple tasks that make up school – such as sitting down to be taught, doing homework, and asking questions, can be extremely complex. Many simply can’t keep up.

“A lot of them suffer panic attacks, and it’s very difficult for them to adjust to life in Australia. It also affects their concentration and memory, which makes it very hard for them to learn English,” says Forward. One of her biggest problems is sourcing interpreters, long before she can refer them to the services they need.

“A lot of my patients are suffering the effects of torture or trauma. A lot of them have post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, chronic pain, and problems with drugs and alcohol because they’re trying to forget their past. Most of them are grieving in some way.”

Fortunately for Abraham, Kenya is more westernised than its neighbouring countries, so he was able to pick up some English in the refugee camp. He says difficulties with assimilating into Australian culture are, in his experience, a shocking norm in refugee communities.

“I had to ask my cousin: what do I buy in the shopping centre? How do I get the bus? How do I get a house like you?”

Although the Australian government permits those on a humanitarian visa 3 months of cultural orientation, it often fails to bridge the gaps. Abraham cites numerous conversations he’s had within his community about nutrition, paying bills, and navigating Centrelink – things which many Australians find difficult.

“It took me so long to find a house. They always say they want references, and each time I have to say ‘I just came to Australia, I can’t give you a reference. Do you want to call the refugee camp?”

Racism is also prevalent in Australia, especially in rural areas like the one in which Abraham and his family live. Abraham is reluctant to accuse anyone of racism, citing that fear of the unknown causes most problems – “people need to get to know each other”. He does, however, acknowledge that the media did a lot of damage to the South Sudanese.

“When we first moved to Gippsland, people looked at us as if we were suspicious. What motivates them to come here? This is the wrong area! I realised that this was what the media told them,” he says, after months of silence with fellow Australian employees.

“The media generally doesn’t encourage compassion for asylum seekers or refugees… it’s really difficult to [be compassionate] when we’re bombarded by the mainstream media which sets the refugees up as ‘others”, says Jenny Forward. She believes that the media needs to reassess their attitudes and the long term consequences of racial reporting especially in relation to crime.

Abraham’s co-workers were referring to the heavy coverage of South Sudanese crime in the media in the mid-2000s, a highly unethical and misleading trend which he believes gave people the wrong impression. Shortly after moving to the Latrobe Valley, he felt he needed to convince every person he met of his innocence.

“So I thought it would be good to go out into the community, and educate them to tell them where we come from, and what we’ve been through,” recalls Abraham.

So he and a small group of refugees visited Rotary, local play groups and day care centres to speak with them.

“I try to educate people to tell them ‘we came here, we’re looking for the same things, we just want a safe place,’ and that there are bad people and good people in every society,” he says, and he feels the response was overwhelming.

After the Sudanese border was reopened he even travelled with four members of the Gippsland community to his home town, in order to strengthen ties in local communities.

Racism and a lack of education aren’t the only things Australians need to be mindful of; we also need to consider Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), says Professor Louise Newman, a professor of psychiatry at Monash Univerity. People with PTSD can experience depression, an inability to cope with change and stress, panic attacks and social withdrawal. They can also be forced to relive trauma with what’s known as a “trigger” which reminds them of a time of distress. Triggers can be seemingly random and unpredictable, from loud noises, crowds, specific smells or textures.

“People should know what it’s like,” says Abraham, who recalls his own experience with PTSD.

Two years ago, his two girls were playing on a trampoline in his front garden, when his neighbour rounded the fence to speak with him. The man asked that the children be quiet, Abraham defended their right to make noise in their game. His neighbour, enraged, told him he would shoot the children if they kept it up.

“So I grabbed my two children,” explained Abraham, “and I raced with them into my house. I took my wife, and I barricaded them all into one room, I told them to keep still and quiet. I ran outside, I took a stick and I started hitting the fence as hard as I could, yelling as I did.”

“I didn’t realise that he had no gun. His wife… she came to me and calmed me. She told me he was a sick man, that he had schizophrenia, and I could see she was afraid of me. I couldn’t control myself in this situation, because of my stress.”

Abraham underwent therapy for PTSD, and encourages many members of his community to do likewise – despite their inherent distrust of hospitals. He explains that therapy is a foreign concept to them, that people only get help if they are dying or insane.

“The trauma comes with the people. They came with the trauma of war – you might see them on the street but mentally they are somewhere else,” he says.

These problems can have long lasting affects, even with treatment, and may cause inter-generational problems. A refugee bearing memories of violent trauma, whether they experience mental health problems or not, often has serious problems parenting says Professor Newman.

“Parents [who] have been dislocated, and have lived in refugee camps… they can find it difficult to re-establish a sense of safety,” says Professor Newman.

Just as Abraham was taken from his parents at 12, many of his peers were stripped of their families at his age or even younger. As such, it’s difficult for them to raise children beyond the age their parents were torn away.

In terms of attachment, the currently accepted theory surrounding childhood trauma in relation to parental figures, most refugees never had the opportunity to create a secure bond with a parental figure. Through death, trauma or dislocation, generations of children grew up without an understanding of a consistent parent, let alone a loving parent. In turn, many find it difficult to foster a secure relationship with their own children, says Abraham.

“When we grew up, we were only taught how to fight. Our only transition was war. Our only education was war. Parenting is a challenge for us,” he states, acknowledging that he is no exception.

To learn about parenting, Abraham enlisted the help of his local pastor, who visited every evening for weeks on end, teaching him skills most Australians consider innate. He had to learn how to make a sandwich, how to tie ribbons in the girls’ hair, how to read with them after school, how to gently correct their mistakes and talk to them about their problems – which were so different to his own.

“People forget, that we have to learn these things,” he says, “they forget because their parents showed them, taught them. We know nothing about Australian parenting.”

While Abraham extols the patience of his pastor, he recognises that not everyone has the privilege of a personal teacher. This led him to reconsider his job as a plumber – a skill he learned in the refugee camp.

“When I compare plumbing and welfare… it’s a big gap, actually,” he laughs, saying that it seemed like a natural transition at the time.

“Humans can only be humans through others. I now have a house, hot water, education… but all these things I got through other people. I think to myself, I should extend the good to them.”

Plumbing in a refugee camp bought fresh water to clean, drink and wash – in a western civilisation it “takes away bad smells or noises”. He realised that his true pleasure lay in helping others, and that the job his community most needed was someone to help them settle in another culture.

“We need bi-cultural workers to develop community services, [and] to encourage people to use those services,” asserts Professor Newman, “especially in remote areas where existing support isn’t enough.”

“There’s a real need for educational programs for different cultural groups to understand how parenting is seen in Australia,” she adds.

Currently, programs are often arranged voluntarily by members of the community such as Abraham. His next project is planning a camping trip in East Gippsland with mixed sets of parents to try to show the South Sudanese communities the benefits of camping.

“They are don’t want to let their children go,” he says, particularly parents with young children. He says he understands this, because many of them never saw their families again after leaving their homes, but he wants to teach them not to be afraid.

It can also produce the opposite effect, wherein when conflict arises, the parent feels that their job is finished and the child can now leave the home. Abraham has to explain that it “isn’t the Australian way” for their children to leave at 13 years old – as they may have.

“That’s why you see a lot of the children of my community loitering, they’ve lost the connection to their parents. Their parents don’t know what to do, how to support them.”

“When their children start getting to a similar age, they might well start thinking about their own experiences and grow worried about that,” says Professor Newman. It can also retrigger traumatic experiences they are unable to cope with, concerning losses at an early age.

As is the case with any migrant community, there are also natural clashes between the parents’ traditional approach and their children’s ideas.

“They might want to maintain some traditional beliefs, and find it very difficult to incorporate the very different values and ideas circulating being an adolescent in Australia,” Louise Newman says, and it can be difficult to reconcile the two.

Support systems for the children of refugees are almost non-existent in most areas of Australia. When their prime care giver is experiencing PTSD, depression, or the lifelong effects of torture, children are always impacted upon negatively – and can even carry this on to the following generation. It’s important to intervene to provide psychological help to children at an early age.

“There’s a lot of support for adults, but not a lot of support for refugee children,” says Jenny Forward, “I think there will be increasing issues over time.”

Forward urges that “mental health in refugees needs to be put back on the agenda again” and that existing support systems for refugees aren’t enough.

Even after living through war, torture and time in refugee camps, refugees continue to face a harsh reality. Isolated in a foreign culture, away from the natural support of their community, unable to communicate properly or to understand daily tasks, many are sinking. Children lose connection to their parents through mental illness and lack of education, cut off from their own culture and separated from Australians by their experiences. Australia needs more bi-cultural workers, more refugees trained as counsellors and psychologists, and a better education for our communities.

As Abraham says, “Life is a privilege. If you hurry, you’re going to fall. If you slow down, and if you stay hopeful, maybe good things will happen soon. If I can’t accept this today, maybe I can accept this tomorrow.”

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