Finding Our Place: Compelling accounts - Refugee and migrant resettlement in Australia

A Thirst for Stories: A Reflection on Finding Our Place

Swinburne University recently launched Finding Our Place: compelling accounts of refugee and migrant resettlement in Australia, a publication written by Susan Powell, a member of EACH’s Community, Carer and Consumer Advisory Committee, and was co-sponsored by EACH and other local organisations.

It highlights 10 current and recent students sharing their personal stories of leaving their homelands to make new lives here in Melbourne.  These powerful stories represent the current experiences of newly arrived migrants and refugees and go some way to highlight the unique journey of becoming part of the community.

At EACH, we are commitment to supporting communities facing issues around social inclusion, further building on the work of refugee communities through programs such as the Refugee Health Clinic, Well Women’s Clinic and other health and community services – you can search our services HERE.

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You can download this publication HERE.

Susan Powell has written the following reflective piece about working on the publication:

A Thirst for Stories

A few months ago, in a sunny courtyard at a Swinburne University campus in Melbourne, I interviewed Sudanese-born Rebecca about her past and present life.

The pleasant setting was in sharp contrast to the horrors she unfolded to me. But it was not Rebecca who broke down in recounting the shattering effects of Sudan’s civil wars on her family of origin. Nor did she weep about the decade she spent from her mid-teens in a huge, arid refugee camp in Kenya, or the fractured relationship with her ex-partner, the father of her five young children, following the couple’s arrival in Australia in 2005.

The tears that morning were mine.

Not very professional, I know that, but surely excusable. I welled up again when Rebecca, with palpable sincerity, said, ‘I am sorry for making you cry’. Shouldn’t it should be the other way around – me apologising to her for probing about traumas with which she generally tries not to re-connect? The lump remained in my throat when she went on to speak of her sons and daughters, whom she is now raising alone in a peaceful pocket of the city’s outer east.

They are lucky to have me,’ she says. ‘I can give them what I didn’t have. They are happy. My story was tragic but what I can provide for my children gives me joy and makes me feel happy too.

Rebecca has been a student at Swinburne University of Technology, is now working, but intends to return there for further study. We met so that I could include her story in Finding Our Place, a collection of accounts of resettlement of some ten refugees and migrants who have recently studied Migrant English and General Education at Swinburne’s three Melbourne campuses. My purpose in writing was not only to document and celebrate these wide-ranging journeys to new lives and achievement but to hopefully offer encouragement to others, as well as challenge some stereotypes.

The other nine participants in Finding Our Place, representative of so many, have similar trajectories to Rebecca’s, although sequences and time-frames are highly individual. One interviewee, originally from the Philippines, is in her mid-fifties; she arrived here thirty years ago with sufficient English for the various employment fields she entered. It was only in the few years, when she was ready for a complete career change and found that her English wasn’t up to scratch for this new area, that she enrolled at Swinburne to improve her competency. She is now at a different university studying for a nursing degree.

Another among the group is a man from Laos, now in his sixties. In 1981 he escaped the Communist Pathet Lao (the party still rules his country) by swimming at night across the Mekong River into Thailand, clutching a plastic bag containing his clothes and an English textbook. He subsequently spent two years in a Thai refugee camp before finding permanent refuge in Australia.

With minimal English he worked until 2016 worked in the one factory in Melbourne; when it closed down he enrolled at Swinburne to study Migrant English. He then undertook a Certificate IV in welding and today he has a new job as a welder. He says he’d like to write a book about his life, and I hope he does.

As with all the volunteer tutors at Swinburne, it goes with the territory that, in the classroom and in the corridor, I’m constantly exposed to hearing snippets of students’ personal back-stories. Over the years I’ve increasingly wished that this first-hand information – moving (frequently confronting), relevant and enlightening – could be disseminated more widely.

But now some such stories have found a symbolic place in Finding Our Place. A modest 40 pages long, the book, published by the university in October last year (and since also available as an e-book, downloadable HERE) has achieved a gratifyingly receptive readership. There seems to be a thirst for stories.

Some of their compressed histories…of escape from countries in South-east Asia, the Middle East, Africa…are eye-opening. They sit in the book alongside the experiences of those who came here by choice but who nonetheless faced the challenges and issues inherent in any transplantation to a different country and culture – not to mention language.

My particular pleasure in listening to the narratives was when interviewees would use expressions that for me were an ‘a ha!’ moment. For one person it was when she said, ‘I gradually started to believe in my own capacity’; for another, ‘If I look behind, I might feel weak’. A third was grateful that ‘Australia is the country of second chances’; a fourth pithily put it, ‘Although it’s hard here, it’s better’.

I felt grateful to this country myself when a thirty-something man, who previously faced no future in the refugee camp he had lived in since childhood and who has a significant disability, told me that because he is now in Australia he is enabled to study and work. ‘From the time I arrived,’ he says, ‘there has been help all around.

Susan Powell
Susan is a publishing freelancer and a volunteer English Language Tutor at Swinburne. She is a member of EACH’s Community, Carer and Consumer Advisory Committee.