Forum on Refugee youth: A challenge for us all
In the 1840s, a journalist travelling through Ireland noticed the people’s lips were green. They were green from their diet of grass. In a time of severe famine there was little else to eat. Out of a population of 8 million, over one million died, and one and a half million boarded boats in search of new lives. Australia was one of their destinations, with the added lure by the 1850s of the gold rushes.
With the exception of Indigenous peoples, we are a nation of boat people whose forebears made the journey from elsewhere to our shores. How we assist succeeding generations in adjusting to their new country is one of the measures of Australia’s maturity and well-being as a nation.
This is an apt context within which to place the seminar, Inspiring Communities: Research and Action with Refugee Youth, held at Melbourne University in May. The initiative arose when the head of the University’s Centre of International Mental Health, Associate Professor Harry Minas, told me of the extensive research undertaken in the University on issues affecting refugee youth.
We decided to convene a forum that would bring together researchers, refugees and their communities, NGOs, activists and service providers, to explore and strengthen the links between these groups. Our concern was to find ways of translating research into productive action. We aimed to open the University doors to people who have been actively engaged with these challenges in the community.
There are many innovative programs focused on refugee youth already out there. Sara Wills, an Associate Dean in the Arts Faculty, joined us and the forum expanded to become a joint venture across several faculties.
The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis agreed to open the forum, and in his address welcomed the wide range of participants. Waleed Musa, from RISE, an organisation run by refugees, ex-detainees and asylum seekers, spoke of the innovative programs the centre has developed to engage with fellow refugee youths, and have their voices heard. Former refugee, Nyadol Nyoun, now a law student at Melbourne University, spoke eloquently of the struggle of young refugees for a sense of identity and belonging as African Australians.
Refugee Ubah Badi joined Courtney Greene of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and community theatre director, Catherine Simmonds, to talk of the Centre’s recent theatre productions and programs that have helped create a home away from home for dislocated asylum seeker youth. Head of Melbourne University’s African Think Tank, Dr Berhan Ahmed, focused on the challenges refugees face in moving from communal societies to the more institutional societies of the West.
Actor, director and playwright, David Nguyen, and researcher and theatre educator Dr Dave Kelman, discussed their unique Western Edge Youth Arts project, and their ongoing work with the Flemington Youth Theatre. Their focus has been on training young people with refugee backgrounds as artistic leaders within their own communities, as well as developing their theatre skills. They were joined by actor Maki Issa, an emerging leader in the Horn of Africa community, and by his fellow actors Soloman Salew and Abraham Herasan.
The trio spoke inspiringly of the inclusive process by which they have devised their plays. Their scripts were first performed within the Flemington Housing Commission estates, and they have been invited to perform their latest play, Black Face, White Mask, at the Malthouse Theatre.
Soo-Lin Quek from the Centre for Multicultural Youth reflected upon its many programs seeking to engage with young people. Its pilot Refugee Youth Support Service aims to provide accommodation for unaccompanied minors, who are without a guardian to assist their transition into independent living. Madeleine Valibhoy, a Research Fellow at Foundation House, spoke of her ongoing research on the experiences of young refugees with mental health services.
Dr Celia McMichael reviewed her research on the Good Starts program, a collaborative venture between the La Trobe University Research Centre and Foundation House, that focuses on the well-being of refugee youth, while Dr John Mahoney, from the Centre of International Mental Health, provided a global perspective.
The forum concluded with a discussion of a network that would enable the participants to stay in touch with each other, and with the research and many other initiatives discussed at the forum.
The challenges faced by refugee youth are formidable. All too many continue to feel isolated, alienated, and on the margins of society. Others have, with sheer hard work, attained much in a short period of time. Their achievements are exemplified by Nyadol Nyoun who dreamt of studying law as a child in a refugee village. At 23 she has attained that goal. She spoke with a sense of urgency. Nothing is taken for granted. Each day counts. When opportunities come they are cherished. There is much that we can learn from this attitude to life.