“We feel safe here”
Tucked away in a quiet, leafy cul de sac in Ocean Shores, is the home of Essam, Douaa, their two young children, and Douaa’s mother, Rabiaa.
Its peacefulness is a far cry from war-torn Syria, which the family left in 2018, and I imagine very different from life in Iraq as a refugee, where they lived for several years before coming to Australia. Essam, Douaa and the children have been here for nine months, and Rabiaa joined them under a family reunification program, three months ago.
We are invited into their home where 2-year-old Drgham lies on his tummy watching TV. His 5-year-old sister, Rahaf, the most fluent English speaker in the family, is at school.
Although Essam and Douaa have made great strides with English, they are not confident enough to speak to us without an interpreter, so, as arranged, we call the free Government Interpreting Agency. This is an excellent service, but it makes spontaneity difficult.
I ask them what they knew about Australia before arriving here, and Essam says they knew ‘it’s a good country and it accepts all cultures. And we know about kangaroos!’
I suggest to Douaa that life here must be very different and she responds yes, but good, because their daughter is able to go to school, and they feel very safe here. She also mentions the availability of work.
Before coming here, Essam worked in construction, hospitality, and anything else he could find. Now he’s working 30-40 hours a week at a local Hotel.
After only nine months, Essam has achieved financial independence (no more Centrelink payments), has learned to drive and has passed his driving test at the first attempt – a feat many native English speakers do not achieve.
They’re very happy about how well the children are settling in, with Rahaf doing very well at school, and Drgham content at daycare – which he attends twice a week while his parents travel to English classes at Kingscliff.
And what has surprised them the most about their experiences so far? The level of help and friendship offered by their Community Support Group. Not only has there been practical help such as driving the family to English lessons, filling in forms, arranging medical appointments and so on, but there have also been social get-togethers as well. The members of the CSG are mostly young families so they are very well-matched to Essam, Douaa and their family.
To settle a refugee household in the local community takes hard work and good community partners. The Ocean Shores Community Support Group found two supportive partners in Brunswick Heads Public Primary School and the Brunswick Hotel.
Public education in NSW has a very long history, reaching out to and working with immigrant and refugee families. In Byron Shire although there is there are a variety of schools, the public education system is the best choice for refugee families.
Significant funding and resources are available for children starting at school with no or little English language skills as a foundation. The Department can also mobilise psychological support and resources very quickly to support children affected by the trauma of their own trauma or their family’s trauma.
When the Support Group contacted the Brunswick Heads Public School, the school mobilised resources in a very short period of time to allow 6 year old, Rahaf to orientate herself in the school and to begin her educational journey. One year on, the drawing shows the writing level of a 7-year old, full of humour, dreams and reality checks.
For children with no English foundation skills and additional learning needs, Ocean Shores Public School has an Additional Needs Unit with specialist teachers whose it is role is to support each child to achieve the outcomes in their individual learning plans. These specialist units foster the whole child and place significant resources in place to achieve credible outcomes for every one of those children.
In addition to earning an income, being employed has many scientifically documented psychological and health benefits. For refugees coming from an environment of transience (sitting in refugee camps awaiting a ticket to a new life) there is little to work towards. Once families have arrived in our community, gainful employment is critical to their successful resettlement.
We were extremely fortunate that Essam had a background as a chef in Syria. Kiki, one of our community support group members has a brother, Loki who is head chef at the Brunswick Hotel.
Essam needed a job, Loki needed a pizza chef. Essam has been employed at the hotel for 10 months. The added benefit is that he is surrounded by English speakers at work and communicates with them every day.
Isabelle Borrelli, Community Support Group