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The Afghan Men’s Exercise Group – an initiative aimed at keeping refugees and asylum seekers on bridging visas connected with the local community in Shepparton, Victoria.

Men sitting in a circle
Participants engaging in ‘chair exercises’ (Photo courtesy of Primary Care Connect)

What?

Primary Care Connect, a community health centre in regional Victoria, established the Afghan Men’s Exercise Group in June 2013 to promote health and wellbeing among refugees and asylum seekers living in Shepparton. The group provides opportunities for Afghan men to come together through a weekly exercise program and links them with existing opportunities within Primary Care Connect.

Who?

The Afghan Men’s Exercise Group attracts up to 20 participants per week. A core group of six to eight men attend every week, with others attending on a semi regular basis. Most of the participants are asylum seekers on bridging visas, with some participants having been granted permanent protection visas.

Why?

Primary Care Connect (PCC) was aware of over 200 people being supported through the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme (ASAS) at UnitingCare Cutting Edge and Australian Red Cross in Shepparton, and that there were an unknown number of asylum seekers in the region without support. The majority of these asylum seekers are ‘unaccompanied’ men (married with children but in Australia alone) from an Afghan background.

This group is highly vulnerable to increasing physical and mental health issues. There are already high levels of depression and mental health issues associated with their current visa status (uncertain futures), previous traumatic experiences, separation from family and culture, the inability to participate in the community (no work or education rights), wider community acceptance, and being politicised by the Government and the media.

A group program that facilitates both physical exercise and social connectedness (some of the social determinants of health) was seen as a way of promoting wellbeing among a vulnerable group with extremely limited access or eligibility to support services.

How?

The Afghan Men’s Exercise Group was set up by the PCC Refugee Team (consisting of a Refugee Health Nurse, Torture and Trauma Counsellor Advocates, Bi-cultural Worker and Manager) as a result of a brainstorm about what PCC could do.

The aims in the development of the group were to reduce social isolation, increase physical activity, provide health-related information and promote PCC services. It was clear through engagement with existing clients that many men were interested in maintaining their health and wellbeing; the idea of a group exercise program seemed a good fit.

As PCC has many other programs, an integrated approach with existing expertise from other program staff was explored, including with PCC’s Chronic Conditions Self-Management team, who were really interested in expanding their client base and learning more about refugee and asylum seeker issues.

As a result PCC now have a weekly rotating 1.5-hour program of Nordic walking, chair-based exercise and table tennis/badminton.

As part of this initiative, the PCC Afghan bi-cultural worker provides language and cultural support to both participants and exercise program facilitators.

PCC recruited participants for the group among its own client base as well as through promotion with other services working with asylum seekers in the area.

The Afghan Men’s Exercise Group draws on existing resources within PCC and receives no specific or additional funding.

PCC aim to expand the group to provide extra integrated programs through the PCC dietician about healthy eating, increasing health literacy regarding the use of prescription medication and the ‘Panadol Project’. The men are also keen to learn relaxation techniques and to learn about ‘sleep hygiene’. The Refugee Team hopes to increase group work to other refugee communities, including a focus on women.

Successes

There are consistently high levels of attendance and the enthusiasm and enjoyment participants derive from the weekly group is a demonstration in itself that the group is meeting the needs of the participants.

A recent review with participants found that they felt more socially connected, valued the opportunity to exercise with ‘experts’ and had been able to learn about PCC and its services.

Referrals in to PCC’s Chronic Conditions Self-Management team, Trauma Counselling and the Refugee Health Nurse have been an added benefit for some individual members.

Challenges

A challenge has been encouraging particularly vulnerable men to attend on a regular basis. As participants need to find their own way to PCC (i.e. transport is not provided), this requires some motivation and can be challenging for those who may be particularly isolated and/or suffering from depression. PCC have found that regular phone contact with participants can help to remind them about the group. PCC’s Afghan Bi-cultural worker makes regular calls and sends a group text in participants’ first language as a reminder prior to each group meeting.

Advice for others

  • Resourcing: In developing any program, start by looking at the skills and resources that you have that are accessible and available. Programs don’t have to cost a lot of money. It can be as straightforward as making existing services and programs accessible to a group of people who may not otherwise be engaged.
  • Understand needs: Develop a good understanding of what the needs are of the group that you are trying to support. Listen to the group.
  • Make connections: If you do not have all of the expertise to run a program that meets a particular need, tap into others’ expertise and develop connections to bring people or organisations with different skills together.

For more information, please contact:
Ph: (03) 5823 3200 (Tim Andrews, Manager)