Refugee communities are taking their long term wellbeing into their own hands. The role of the refugee sector should be to amplify their efforts – writes Rebecca Mackinnon.

Community, most would agree, is a fundamental human need: be it a church choir, a Dungeons and Dragons meet-up, a group of fellow dog-walkers or the other parents at your child’s ballet class, your community creates a sense of belonging and security vital in enabling you to thrive. For people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds, such a sense of togetherness is even more crucial, enabling emerging communities to develop roots and stability which, for many, may have been denied for years, even generations.

Mohamed Nabe knows this better than most. Mohamed is from Liberia, and has been in Australia for around 14 years. He fled Liberia after the outbreak of the civil war, and moved to Guinea, where he went to school and eventually applied for asylum in Australia. “When I was here I was so happy that I was in a safe country,” he says. “But at the same time I was really homesick. My first week I was excited to be in a foreign country, to have so many opportunities, to be able to contribute – but I was so sad. I cried a lot – if I’d had a choice, I would have gone home. I knew no one. The case worker had to come and take us to the shopping centre, because we didn’t know about Google maps or GPS.”

Mohamed Nabe from Southern Rivers Community Services

Mohamed Nabe from Southern Rivers Community Services

It was this experience of profound dislocation, of feeling adrift and without community, that led Mohamed to become involved with refugee community groups. “It made me really want to help people know they have a community here to turn to. The language barrier makes things hard – in Guinea, we grew up learning French, and no one here speaks it. Even doctors’ appointments can be daunting – so we go off to the bus station together, and they know they can call us if they get lost.”

“That was a wake up call for us… We can’t let this happen to people.”

Mohamed provides more than just logistical support for newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers – he gives his community the assurance that they are cared for. It’s about the small things – “accommodation, internet, bank accounts: all the things we take for granted here” – but also facilitating the bureaucracy around marriages, celebrating baby-naming ceremonies, and helping to ensure that the end of a person’s life is marked with dignity. In one tragic case, a friend of Mohamed’s died and the community struggled to pay for his funeral. “That was a wakeup call for us,” said Mohamed. “We can’t let this happen to people. We decided it was better to get a fund together before these things happen, so that we know the money is there when we need it.” The money – around $6000 for a basic funeral – is collected and sent to the family by the community, so that no one feels ashamed if they can’t contribute very much.

Births, marriages and deaths: the foundations of community. The other piece of the puzzle, one that has proved extremely challenging, is employment. Even where English is a first language, navigating a complex job market can be tough, especially when individuals want nothing more than to contribute and be useful to their new society. Mohamed’s organisation began by asking those within the community who were in employment if they could put in a good word with the manager: sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Then came the announcement of a new NDIS model. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) represents a significant shift away from the traditional model of social care. The opportunity for the consumer to choose their own services to best suit their needs, while imperfect, nonetheless introduces an element of freedom to social care – and greater consumer choice creates entrepreneurial opportunity. In this announcement, Mohamed identified a window for both secure employment and the chance to give back, and Southern Rivers Community Services, Mohamed’s nascent NDIS provider, was born. The opportunity to provide community-based care aligns perfectly with the values of his community, says Mohamed. “Lots of women in our community already work in allied health and social care; as a group we hold a lot of qualifications in this area and Africans have been gaining a reputation for being excellent carers.”

“We believe that your problems and the challenges you face do not make you less valuable.”

When asked what it is about Africans that suits them so well for caring roles, he replies with palpable pride, “It’s the African perspective – disability and age are not stigmatised,” he says. “We believe that your problems and the challenges you face do not make you less valuable. You are still part of society. This is at the heart of our culture – it’s all about respect. We feel we can really make a difference in this industry because of this culture of respect. It’s hard here because we’re in a society where everyone works, so you wouldn’t want to leave an elderly person alone at home – to be able to offer that important service, of caring for the elderly and people with disabilities, is a privilege.”

Enabling Mohamed to harness the values and enormous potential of his community is the guiding principle of Community Four, an organisation founded and run by Gavin Ackerly, formerly director of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Empowerment and Innovation Hub. Traditionally, community and social assistance sector organisations operate within a top-down model – individuals and communities in need of assistance are provided with services dictated by supply and demand logic, and by high-level strategic aims mapped out to meet the physical needs of those being served. Gavin learned during his work with the ASRC that allowing emerging communities of newly arrived refuges and asylum seekers to take control of their own communities, their own destinies, would yield incredible results.

‘Empowerment isn’t measurable, so our systems aren’t really motivated by this kind of thing,”

Direct service delivery – such as legal assistance, food and English teaching – has its place, Gavin says, but for displaced people who have been at the mercy of huge and impersonal systems, one of the most empowering things that Australian organisations can do is give them back some control. The physical needs of newly arrived refugee and asylum seeker individuals are obviously crucial – but enhancing psychological health must be the foundation on which longer term well-being is built. Gavin’s approach is called Symbiotic Innovation, and is built on the notion that communities – both established and emerging – must learn to turn together to face challenges as a whole, rather than viewing the emerging community as a problem to be solved.

Gavin Ackerly with Southern Rivers' Leadership

Gavin Ackerly with Southern Rivers’ Leadership

‘The status quo is so outcomes driven that it loses sight of what kind of impact empowerment can have,’ says Gavin. ‘Empowerment isn’t measurable, so our systems aren’t really motivated by this kind of thing – but allowing people the space to control their own lives is incredibly important. Yes, we might have some expertise in areas of service delivery, but that should only be used to support the decisions that communities want to make, not to impose what we think will be best.’

This is the goal of Community Four – to give emerging communities and their leaders the support of local expertise and connections, while ensuring that decision-making remains firmly in the hands of the community itself. Gavin’s organisation raises up and amplifies Mohamed’s goals – but the power is already there, and ready to move forward.

Challenges remain. Start up costs, such as hiring initial workers, insurance and finding premises from which to run the organisation, are high. Mohamed also works full time for NAB and has two little daughters, but his passion and drive are tireless. The support of Community Four is already opening doors. A recent partnership with Proud Mary has offered valuable lessons in running a business, while Gavin’s connections with RMIT University have enabled access to world-class business consultancy.

A successful business plan is not what Mohamed is most excited about, however. “Giving people the opportunity to get jobs, giving them the chance to work here and be part of this country, that’s been our biggest win,” says Mohamed. “Teaching my community how to be good citizens, that’s the goal. “Our members are from different tribes but what this country teaches us is the notion of citizenship where we are all ­­­­­equal – here, being a citizen is part of a bigger and more important idea of our society, and it’s a privilege to be able to encourage my people to bring more to the table, to be really useful to society. This is my greatest hope.”

Southern Rivers is a not-for-profit organisation, which has deductible gift recipient (DGR) status. It is also registered as a public benevolent institution. If you are interested in contributing to the work of Southern Rivers, please contact for more information.

Author: Rebecca Mackinnon

Author: Rebecca Mackinnon