A refugee centre that feels like home

When Australia’s relationship with refugees changes so rapidly, how does an organisation set up to support them keep up?

Tucked away in the far corner of an unassuming block of shops in Perth’s northern suburbs, the Edmund Rice Centre has found a simple solution that has held it in good stead for more than 20 years. Christina Ward, ERC chief operations officer, says it’s because of the organisation’s history that it’s path forward is so clear.

“We didn’t start as a service provider. We started as a support program in someone’s house,” she says.

“To me, it feels that we’ve never lost that lounge room, family-invited feeling.”

Founded in 1998 in response to the needs of Bosnian refugees fleeing the former Yugoslavia, the centre’s reach now extends from Yanchep to Thornlie through dozens of different programs, all coordinated from Mirrabooka.

“You’ll notice it’s not a new, flashy building,” chief executive Natasha Kusmuk tells me.

Natasha Kusmuk took over as the centre’s second CEO only a few months ago, after the organisation’s founder stepped down. Photo: Keane Bourke.

“We want to try and preserve that. It’s a very comfortable environment and I think that’s what sets us apart: people are always welcome to walk in. Sometimes people will walk in and just come for a coffee and just have a chat, and that flexibility is there.”

Each office has a pinup board, decorated with an eclectic mix of everything from newspaper clippings of clients’ achievements, to photos and children’s artwork given by the families they work with. It’s a common sight to see Ward speaking to a client with a young child smiling on her knee, such is the connection she shares with her families.

Christina Ward’s connection with her clients often extends years beyond their direct involvement with the centre.

The centre bucks the growing trend of organisations implementing strict regulations to boost their efficiency. Instead, Kusmuk says the more personal approach is what allows the small centre to help more than 4000 people each year.

“If we just saw them for a limited amount of time, or we saw just the one person and not the whole family, I think what we’d be seeing is repeat [visits] and coming back, and I think that would probably limit our ability to do more,” she says.

“So we do give a lot upfront, but I think there’s a long-term gain for both the clients and us.”

That service remains consistent regardless of the current refugee population.

In the 1990s, when the centre opened its doors, almost half of all refugees coming to Australia were from the former Yugoslavia, with only eight per cent coming from Africa. Today, more than half of those who received refugee visas in 2017-18 were from Iraq and Syria, with around 5,000 people from Myanmar, Congo and Afghanistan rounding out the top five.

Naw Say Paw arrived in Australia in 2016, having fled civil war in Myanmar with her partner.

“Our house, farm, everything they took and we couldn’t survive,” she tells me.

“My father and parents both died in my country. I cannot go back.

“We cannot hide [for] long, so we run from Thailand and Malaysia, and then we came to here.”

Having survived the risk of being killed at the Thai border, and the gangsters she says ran rampant in Malaysia, it’s the team at the centre who have helped her settle into Australia best and given her the confidence to help other people in her community when they have issues. .

Naw Say Paw shares her favourite part of living in Australia.

“If we not contact Edmund Rice Centre, it’s very hard to understand and [be] stable in Australia,” Paw says.

“It’s just one place for everything.”

The first five years

The centre is funded by the Department of Social Services to provide case-by-case support to refugees for their first five years in Australia. Beyond that, the government believes, clients should have a good enough grasp of the system to manage it themselves.

In reality though, a number of barriers can prevent people from looking after their own affairs, particularly with the government, leaving the centre in a difficult situation.

“They’re not coming because it’s some little thing, they come when it’s a problem, so we can’t show them the door,” Ward says.

“It’s people that come in with letters, they can’t read the letters. They give them to you. You have a quick look and they’re going to have their electricity cut off or their child’s going to be kicked out of school.

“They’re issues that you can’t expect people to deal with on their own with no language, and there’s no one else to send them to.

“It doesn’t matter if someone’s been here two years or 15 years, if they can’t speak English and they can’t read and write, they’re always going to need assistance.”

Christina Ward says while MyGov has made life easier for many Australians, it’s making life much more difficult for those who don’t speak English.

As best they can though, the centre’s settlement caseworkers prepare their clients to take care of themselves when that five years is up. At times the process can take up to a year, to make sure people feel comfortable and confident enough.

For those first five years though, people can seek out their caseworker for anything they need help with.

While I’m in the centre Alaa Al-Batati, one of the caseworkers, sees a new client whose date of birth is incorrect on her ImmiCard – a document used by people who hold valid visas but can’t obtain a passport recognised by the Australian government. She explains it’s a common issue for those coming from countries like Ethiopia, where the year is 2012, because the nation uses a different calendar system.

Another visitor is an older man from Burma, who grins and laughs through the entire appointment, proudly wearing a jumper with an Australian flag on his chest. He needs help applying for public housing, and is also connected with the centre’s English classes, which he’s eager to join.

Alaa Al-Batati shares one of her most emotional cases.

Most of Al-Batati’s clients are happy and excited to be in Australia and are often overjoyed to share their experiences with the centre’s staff. For around five of her clients each month though, their relationship with the immigration process makes things difficult.

“I feel it most when someone who has come from a refugee camp or war, and they say ‘I wish I am back,” she says.

“That in itself is just shocking, and I wish sometimes people would hear that to see to what extent they’ve pushed people [by] making it really difficult.”

At times, that desperation and frustration can boil over, with disastrous consequences.

“You’ll get men who commit domestic violence for the first time in their lives because they’re trying to hold onto power and understand how that family structure works,” Kusmuk says.

“Kids, they’ll rebel because they’re in a new culture and they can’t seem to negotiate between the two identities, or three identities, some of them.”

Al-Batati agrees domestic violence is often closely linked to the stressful situation government processes can place families in.

“One man, he said back home, he used to be walking around with cash in his pockets and helps this person and that person. Since he got here, he’s not that anymore. He’s waiting on a government payment that’s being cut every fortnight.”

“He is afraid because he thinks he’s losing control, that his wife might change on him and find someone else because he is not the same man that she met.”

Equally, the stress of accessing government support can have a lifechanging effect on young people, made even more dangerous by WA’s growing methamphetamine problem.

Ward tells the story of one young man with intellectual disabilities whose struggles began shortly after he became ineligible for the disability allowance.

“He’s been going downhill and downhill,” she says.

“He’s now gone in with a bunch of boys that live in Balga. His family worry about him. I worry about him.

“I get someone telling me ‘there’s drugs in that house.’ The house was busted last week and they were arrested. Five of them, including this boy, were released.

“Is he using? Quite possibly.”

Christina Ward’s pinup board contains memories from more than a decade spent at the centre. Photo: Keane Bourke.

She says this is just one example of the meth crisis facing the African community, in particular.

“The Italian kids, the Vietnamese kids might’ve got into trouble, but the amount of kids now that are using drugs to self-medicate or just because there’s nothing else to do,” she says.

“Before the kids could go off the rails, you can get them back on again. If they’re addicted to meth it’s not as easy as that.”

Supporting the future

For a teenager, finding your identify is hard enough – but what happens when you come from a migrant or refugee background? Often uncomfortable identifying with their home country because of trauma, and also not feeling entirely Australian, a potentially dangerous situation begins to emerge.

A 2013 study found young humanitarian migrants to Australia experienced psychological distress at a rate six times higher than the general population for males, and three times higher for females. All up, around a third of all young humanitarian migrants were classified as having “moderate/high psychological distress”.

Kusmuk, a refugee who herself struggled with her identify after arriving in Australia aged 10, says political commentary can be particularly dangerous for young people – especially as social media continues to grow its reach.

Natasha Kusmuk gives her thoughts on the challenges facing young refugees trying to find their identity.

“Adults seem to brush it off, they tend to stick to their beliefs, which are usually well established,” she says.

“Young people, they do struggle to negotiate that and understand, ‘Well, if on TV they’re saying Muslims are bad, and I’m Muslim, well, what else am I supposed to do? Do I join the crowd or do I fight it?’”

To help battle these influences, the centre is placing an ever-growing emphasis on leadership and sports programs for young people, which operate in surprising ways to try and safeguard the wellbeing of the next generation.

Importantly, the programs aren’t just about kids with refugee and migrant backgrounds.

“Creating that sense of community can’t just one from one community engaging with that one group,” Kusmuk says.

“Building those bridges creates that sense of belonging and inclusion and understanding, from the very first settler in Australia to the very recent settler.

“They learn from each other, and we certainly learn from them as well.”

When I arrive to spend some time with the centre’s Leadership Program, I’m greeted by a group of Instagram-ready young people, gathering for a public yoga session in Supreme Court Gardens. Somewhere towards the back though, there’s a group of kids that stands out from the activewear-clad crowd.

Bella Ndayikeze says, on average, around 30 young people attend the leadership program each week, experiencing everything from cooking to conversations about the universe. Photo: Keane Bourke.

Today’s group from the centre’s Leadership Program reflects the incredibly diverse cohort of more than 90 young people who might join the program’s activities every Saturday. Ashante, 14, was born in Australia, and says the broad spectrum of members’ histories is always welcomed in the group, “It’s treated equal, it’s treated like it matters.

“It’s not something you just forget about and ignore.”

Ashante says the program helps participants become more confident in themselves. Photo: Keane Bourke.

Someone who understands the kids’ background more than many others is the group’s coordinator, Bella Ndayikeze. She’s 23 now, but not long after arriving in Australia in 2005 she found a home in the same program she now leads.

Among a host of other responsibilities, Ndayikeze’s passion for the program is clear. She’s busy, juggling membership of countless boards with other community work, but the group she says changed her life still holds a special place in her heart.

Bella Ndayikeze says the program is directly driven by participants, their interests, and what they want to do not just as a group, but also individually. Photo: Keane Bourke.

“What sets the Edmund Rice Youth Programs apart from all the other programs is that they are holistic and they are long-term,” she says.

“We work with the community, their immediate communities. We work with the schools. We also work with the clubs. We pretty much work with everything that they could be involved in and are involved in.”

Fatoumata, 11, was born in Africa but came to Australia when she was about three. She’s been involved in the leadership program for more than a year now and tells me with a grin her plans to be the next Bella.

Fatoumata might only be 11, but she’s already making her mark across the centre’s programs. Photo: Keane Bourke.

As well as taking part in the leadership program, Fama, as Bella nicknamed her, is also one of Australia’s youngest AFL umpires and the youngest member of the centre’s internship program, which equips members with the skills to enter the workforce as volunteers.

Despite the opportunities, Fatoumata says the leadership program will always be special for one reason: “the people.”

“They’re nice, they make me feel comfortable, so why not stay?” she says.

“We have to speak up, like when we first get there, we have to say our names in case there’s new people. Even if there’s no new people, just say it to make you more confident.

“[The program] teaches us how to be confident, positive and how to take care of ourselves and others.”

Daniel Sherifi says he had a similar experience. After arriving in Australia from Afghanistan aged 15, with very little sporting experience, he too found a home in the centre’s sporting and leadership programs.

“There was a level of support that I really didn’t get anywhere else, not even at school,” he says.

Mr Sherifi explains why sport is more important now than ever, and why some communities might be reluctant to get involved.

“Edmund Rice was a perfect place for me to go into just because of that love that they had for the community and the support that they had for the individual.”

Now a youth programs coordinator, with a particular focus on many of the sporting groups the centre runs, he hopes to help the next generation in similar ways.

“We aim to look after the entire development pathway, including their skills development, their leadership development and their personal development to be able to get to as high as they can,” he says.

Ndayikeze says the significance of the programs is simple.

“They deserve to live,” she says.

“This is Australia, this is the land of opportunities, and they deserve that investment because they have the potential to contribute back to the country in such a huge way.”

Bella Ndayikeze explains the impact of the leadership program.

As Ndayikeze continues to find unique and exciting ways to develop the leadership skills of the program’s participants, she says other service providers have a lot to learn from the program’s impact.

“We see the outcomes, and the consequences of the type of our programs not existing in our local area,” she says.

“We don’t want to hold onto these kids. We want them to branch out and really be free and explore the world to the best of their abilities.”