Is a community falling apart if there are many community organisations and structures? No, argues PhD candidate and former refugee Atem Dau Atem. In his analysis of South Sudanese community structures in Sydney, he sees the large number of community organisations and structures as a sign that communities are meeting their own needs, and helping people settle.
The Refugee Council of Australia advocates on issues relating to refugee protection at both a national and international level. Issues identified in our annual community consultations often relate to concerns that refugee and humanitarian entrants in Australia have about people they are connected to living in precarious situations in other parts of the world.
The knowledge, connections and experiences of refugee diasporas in Australia can make them effective advocates at an international level, providing a voice for refugees that may not be otherwise be able to access decision-makers.
RCOA is committed to strengthening the link between refugee advocates and international decision-makers, such as the UNHCR, Human Rights Council, IOM and government missions to the UN in Geneva. Since 2007, RCOA has been providing support through the annual John Gibson Refugee Community Leadership Grant and other means for advocates from refugee backgrounds to participate in international dialogue on refugee protection.
John Gibson Refugee Community Leadership Grant
What is the grant?
Established in 2012, the annual John Gibson Refugee Community Leadership Grant supports advocates from refugee backgrounds to take part in high-level international advocacy on refugee issues. One advocate is selected each year to join the Australian NGO team at the annual consultations between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and NGOs in Geneva, Switzerland. The consultations bring together NGOs from around the world and provide a forum to network, gather and share information, hear about new policies and best practice, discuss protection gaps and identify joint solutions. Participation in these meetings also provides opportunities for high-level advocacy through side meetings with UNHCR personnel, government representatives and other key players.
Who was John Gibson?
John Gibson AM (1950-2012) was one of the Australian refugee sector’s best-loved and most admired advocates, working tirelessly to promote the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum for over 25 years. He was respected both in Australia and internationally for his knowledge of refugee law, his advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers and his leadership of Australia’s refugee sector.
John served as RCOA’s President between January 2006 and August 2012, was the founding chairperson of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (also known as Foundation House) and served as a Member (part-time) of the Refugee Review Tribunal for four years. A member of the Victorian Bar, he operated a specialist practice in refugee and migration law, served as junior counsel in a number of significant High Court cases on refugee issues, and provided information, advice and training on a variety of refugee-related issues both in Australia and overseas. In 2013, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for significant service to international relations as an advocate for human rights”.
RCOA has supported the following advocates to participate in international advocacy, either through the John Gibson Refugee Community Leadership Grant or through enabling their participation in other ways.
Bernice came to Australia in 2014 from Burundi. She has a strong passion for advocacy for street children and refugees, particularly those in the Great Lakes region of Africa. She has dedicated many years to research in this field, which has allowed her to build more effective solutions through a range of avenues, including her work with the Red Cross and the Association for Peace and Human Rights. In Australia, she continues to contribute to her passions, and she has worked with the Burundian community in Sydney, the Campbelltown Uniting Church and the Asylum Seekers Centre. She hopes that the opportunity to attend UNHCR meetings in Geneva will be a stepping stone in improving the situation of all refugees, but particularly the women and children living in camps in her homeland.
Simon Sang Hre
Simon is a member of the Chin community in Melbourne. Before coming to Australia, he was an active leader of his community in Malaysia. His practical experiences with Chin refugee communities and human rights organisations and the International Rescue Committee in Kuala Lumpur give him an excellent understanding of International Human Rights and Refugee Law. In Australia, Simon continues to be a voice for his community, and has been a volunteer with the Australian Chin Relief Committee since 2015. At the meeting of the UNHCR in Geneva, Simon wishes to bring the plight of refugees living in India and Malaysia and the issues facing Rohingya refugees to the world’s attention.
Atem Dau Atem
Atem Dau Atem was born in South Sudan, but fled his home at the young age of 12. He arrived in Australia as a refugee at the age of 28, having endured 15 years living in various refugee camps. He has been a strong advocate for refugee rights, having been involved in a number of community organisations, including the Refugee Communities Advocacy Network (RCAN) of which he is a founding member. In addition, Atem has carried out advocacy to support South Sudanese communities both in South Sudan and in refugee camps in Kenya. Atem worked for STARTTS in Sydney and is a PhD candidate writing about the settlement of South Sudanese families in Australia (2017).
In 2017, RCOA provided support to the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW) Chair, Tabitha Chepkwony, and Tenneh Kpaka to advocate for women and girls at the UNHCR NGO Consultations. Throughout a range of positions, Tabitha has continuously supported refugee arrivals, particularly women, to resettle and develop their lives in Australia. Tabitha is a member of the Federal African Ministerial Consultative Committee and of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network. In 2017 she was a contributor to the Kenyans in Sydney Welfare Association (KISWA) and was a director at TAABCO Research & Development Consultants (2017).
The theme of the UNHCR NGO Consultations in 2016 was ‘youth’. In the lead-up to the NGO Consultations, a series of consultations were held with young people around the world under the banner of the Global Refugee Youth Consultations (GRYC). As part of the GRYC process, RCOA collaborated with the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network (MYAN) Australia. Additionally, with the support of a range of organisations in Australia, RCOA and MYAN were able to support four young advocates to participate in the GRYC and NGO Consultations. The John Gibson Refugee Community Leadership Grant was therefore incorporated into this funding for the selected youth advocates. The four recipients were Arash Bordbar, Arif Hazara, Elizabeth Lang and Sarah Yahya.
Arash Bordbar arrived in Australia following five years in a refugee camp in Malaysia, after fleeing Iran with his family. He is dedicated to fighting for education for refugees; during his long period awaiting resettlement, Arash worked with a top university to establish the first ever refugee-only education centre in that country. Moreover, he is a strong advocate for refugee youth’s sexual rights (LGBTI) and gender equality. Since attending the UN, Arash has participated in the UN High Commissioners Dialogue and has been appointed Deputy Chair of the APRRN (Asia Pacific Refuge Rights Network) Youth Working Group. He was awarded the Young People’s Human Rights Medal by the Australian Human Rights Commission, in recognition of his achievements.
Arash was selected as the ATCR community representative in 2017.
Arif Hazara, an ethnic Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, came to Australia as a young asylum seeker in 2011. Arif is an active advocate for the rights of refugee youth. He has represented the interests of young refugees at a range of forums, and is a member of the Refugee Communities Advocacy Network (RCAN) as well as the Refugee Council of Australia’s Face-to-Face program. He has also undertaken advisory roles to ensure that the voices of young migrants are heard in the decisions that affect them. He has spoken on radio and produced documentaries with the aim of promoting a humanitarian approach to immigration.
Originally from South Sudan, Elizabeth Lang migrated to Australia with her family in 1998. Elizabeth has been an ardent campaigner for human rights, with seven years’ experience in the community development sector. Her areas of interest include refugee settlement, domestic and family violence prevention and trauma-informed community development. As a passionate public speaker, Elizabeth has presented on panels, forums and conferences in Australia and internationally. She works at ASeTTS as a Research Officer and at Curtin University of Technology as a Sessional Academic (2017). In addition, she is undertaking a doctorate at Curtin University, with the Department of Social Sciences and Security Studies. As well as participating in the NGO Consultations, Elizabeth represented Australia as a community representative at the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR).
Sarah Yahya was born in Iraq belonging to the minority religion Mandaeanism. In 2000, she left the country for Jordan, where she lived for almost seven years before being resettled in Australia. She is now studying Journalism and International Studies at the University of Technology Sydney (2017). Sarah has been a passionate advocate for migrant youth, leading the Mandaen Youth Committee and acting as a Youth Ambassador to the Multicultural Youth Network Australia and New South Wales. She has undertaken projects with Settlement Services International’s Youth Collective, and as of 2017, was a youth councillor for Liverpool City Council. In 2015, Sarah was awarded the Multicultural Youth Premier’s Youth Medal and Rotary’s Young Citizen of the Year, in recognition of her contribution.
Dor Akech Achiek
Dor Akech Achiek is a former refugee from South Sudan, who arrived in Australia in 2003. After nine years in a Kenyan refugee camp, he became an active member of his local community in Australia, volunteering his time with several organisations and initiatives for young migrants. His roles throughout the years include youth project work with the Auburn Community Development Network (ACDN) and Mount Druitt Ethnic Community Agency (MECA). In 2014, Dor began working with Settlement Services International. In his position as the Youth Projects Coordinator, Dor continues to aid others to navigate the challenges of resettlement (2017).
Teju Chouhan fled Bhutan in 1991 escaping systemic discrimination from the government, as a member of a Nepali-speaking minority. While waiting for resettlement in Nepal, Teju ran a radio programme in Kathmandu, putting into practice his Bachelor’s Degree in journalism. He was undertaking his Masters in English Literature at Tribhuvan Univeristy when Australia accepted his claim for asylum in 2008. In his new hometown of Wodonga, Teju became an active member of the community, working for the Wodonga Council to help integrate the increasing numbers of Bhutanese-Nepalese refugees arriving in the town. He later became the founding Chairperson and board member of the Albury Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council. In 2017, he was awarded the Wodonga Citizen of the Year award, as a testament to his passion and contribution to the community. Teju participated in the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR) as the community representative.
Nuha Markus was the 2014 recipient of the John Gibson Grant in recognition of her extensive background in refugee settlement services. With roles in varied organisations, Nuha has worked to assist new arrivals to integrate into the community and to facilitate access to a range of vital services. Coming from an Iraqi background, Nuha has continued to contribute to the Iraqi community, noticeably through her Editor role with the Nohra Iraqi Community Magazine. At the time of her advocacy in Geneva, Nuha was a manager at Spectrum in Melbourne.
Joseph Youhana arrived in Australia in 2006, after leaving Iraq with his family. He began volunteering as a bilingual tour guide with Parks Victoria, and his passion for community involvement led him to assist at Spectrum Migrant Resource Centre. In 2009, he began working for AMES as a Community Guide, and has since been involved in a range of services, including Employment and Education. As of 2017, he was an Accommodation Team Leader and a Pathway Counsellor, working to ensure that new arrivals are connected with the training and education opportunities available. Joseoph participated in the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR) as the community representative.
Abdul Karim Hekmat
Adbul Karim Hekmat arrived in Australia in 2001, after fleeing Hazara persecution in Afghanistan. Since then, he has become a Hazara community representative and participated in the debate on refugee issues through a range of forums. He is a published author, with his anthology ‘Alien Shores’ published in 2012, and has written articles for several newspapers including The Guardian and The Age. In his role as a Youth Development Worker at Fairfield Migrant Resource Centre, he aids young migrants to transition into Australian life and build their skills and confidence. Abdul is a Board Member of the Refugee Council of Australia (2014-current).
Alfred Kamara has had extensive experience in resettlement, including personal experience after he left his home country of Liberia as a result of civil conflict. As an Unaccompanied Minor in refugee camps in Guinea, he was the recipient of an International Rescue Committee scholarship and Albert Astraim scholarship allowing him to further his studies in Secretarial Science and French. He also established the Africa School of Computer Literacy to help other refugees improve their computer skills. He has continued to aid migrants in Australia through his work with Access Community Services in Queensland, as a Work Experience Coordinator (2017). Alfred is also involved in his local community as Secretary of the Liberian Association of Queensland, and member of the Management Committee of the Queensland African Football Association. Alfred participated in the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR) as the community representative.
Ahmed Dini is a Somali refugee who settled in Australia at the age of ten. Inspired by the disenfranchisement he saw in refugees and migrants around him, he became part of a group that founded the Australian Somali Football Association (ASFA). Through the Association, Ahmed has been able to encourage thousands of migrant youth to engage in local sports and their community. Moreover, ASFA has grown to become a leading body for the Horn of Africa community in Australia, with their Australian Somali football championships attracting more than 4,500 people. Aside from his work with ASFA, Ahmed is also a Project Ambassador for Sustainable Employment and Economic Development (SEED), where he facilitates work placements for youth in the City of Moonee Valley (2017). Ahmed was recognised as Victorian Local Hero in 2012. Ahmed participated in the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR) as the community representative.
Parsuram Sharma-Luital is a Bhutanese refugee who arrived in Australia in 2002. A strong advocate for refugee rights, Parsuram has volunteered at all stages of the resettlement process. Throughout various years, his work has led to roles such as President of the Bhutanese Community in Australia Inc., Board Member of Directors of the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria (ECCV), Chair of Statelessness Working Group of Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APPRN) as well as a host of other Ambassador and Board roles. In 2014, Parsuram’s extensive contribution was recognised when he named the inaugural ‘New Australian of the Year.’ As of 2017, Parsuram was serving as the Honorary Secretary for the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia. Parsuram was also a member of the Australian delegation in 2010.
Deena Yako fled her home in Iraq at the age of nine, spending four years in an Iranian refugee camp before being resettled in Australia. Speaking little English, Deena studied intensively to finish HSC with her age group. She now shares her experiences with other high school students as part of RCOA’s Face-to-Face program, in addition to her work as Settlement Grants Team Leader with the Fairfield Migrant Resource Centre (2017). Deena is also the Community Development Officer with the Parents Café in Fairfield, an initiative that has received praise from Antonio Guterres (the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees 2005-2015) as an example of global best practice for refugee resettlement support.
Endalkatchew Gage came to Australia as a refugee from Ethiopia. He has been involved in a range of community organisations, and at the time of his advocacy was assisting Good Shepherd Youth and Family Services.
In his hometown in Burma, Dr Kamal Hussein worked as a rural doctor and was a member of the National Democratic Party for Human Rights. After crackdowns on several political parties, he spent 14 years as a refugee in Malaysia where he continued to practise as a medical officer for Malaysian universities. In addition, he became a coordinator for the Burma Solidarity Group in Malaysia (BGSM). After arriving in Australia in 2006, he has continued this mission through his involvement with the Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia (BRCA), as well as working with the Cancer Institute of NSW and the School of Medicine at the University of Western Sydney.
Melika Sheikh-Eldin was born in Eritrea and was educated as a Marine Biologist, before the outbreak of war brought her on a different path. She began working in refugee camps in Egypt and Sudan, where she assisted children and families to access education and necessities. After migrating to Australia, Melika continued to contribute to the needs of refugee communities through her extensive engagement with local communities and organisations, and advocacy at UNHCR Conferences. She is the Manager of Settlement Services at AMES and is a Board Member of RCOA (2007-current).
Tony Ogeno Oyet
Originally from Sudan, Tony Ogeno Oyet arrived in Australia in 2003. He spent several years in Uganda and the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya before being accepted for resettlement in Adelaide. Tony embraced the educational opportunities in his new hometown and began studying International Business at the Adelaide Institute of TAFE. He has since become President of the Sudanese Community of South Australia and a Community Development Worker for Central Northern Adelaide Health Services (2017).
Tenneh Kpaka was raised in Sierra Leone, where she spent her childhood visiting the neighbouring refugee camps. There she administered assistance in any way she could, including listening to the stories the refugees had to tell. The suffering and hardship Tenneh witnessed would lead her to dedicate her life to refugees, and in particular, amputee children. In 2001, Tenneh migrated to Australia where she began working as a Project Worker for Women at Risk at Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre. In 2005, Tennah self-funded her first trip to Geneva for the UNHCR Annual Consultations. She has since returned various times, including in 2006 to present the findings of a funded trip to document the lives of amputee children in Guinean refugee camps. She works with Settlement Services International and is the Deputy Chair for Women at Risk Working Group for Asian Pacific Refugee Rights Network (2017).