Bendigo Community Health Services to continue humanitarian settlement services for refugees

Mohammad Taef Mirzaei and Zahra Nazari arrived in Bendigo with their two young daughters at the start of the year as refugees.

They came to Australia, via Iran, because the Hazara people – the ethnic group to which they belong – are persecuted in their country of Afghanistan.

“It was a good feeling, a happy feeling, to be coming to Australia,” Mr Mirzaei said.

But with neither Mr Mirzaei nor Ms Nazari speaking English, they have encountered a significant language barrier.

That, and the feeling of isolation that has come with it, have been difficult.

But with the help of workers from Bendigo Community Health Services, they have started to establish a new life for themselves and their daughters, Asma, 4, and Roghayeh, 1, in the city.

Now more refugees will be able to make their home in Bendigo and be supported in the process, following the announcement that BCHS has received a new contract to continue delivering the humanitarian settlement program in the area for another five years on behalf of AMES Australia.

BCHS settlement services team manager Martine Street said the humanitarian settlement program was a case management service focused on building knowledge and independence among its clients.

Ms Street said the organisation had provided humanitarian settlement services since 2010 and in that time, had helped hundreds of people settle in Bendigo.

Most refugees who have come to Bendigo are Karen people; there is also a small community of Hazara people, and more recently, some people have arrived from Africa.

Settlement workers help refugees connect with necessary services, including schools and language classes, find housing, and engage with their community.

Ms Street said they also worked closely with the police to keep new arrivals safe and lawful, and Consumer Affairs, to ensure refugees were not taken advantage of.

The settlement workers at BCHS are supported by volunteers, many of whom are people who arrived as refugees and received support services themselves.

“We couldn’t do it without volunteers,” Ms Street said.

Mr Mirzaei said his family had had a “great experience” with settlement workers from BCHS.

He said that when they first arrived, they were anxious about communication.

But he said they received a lot of help from the settlement team, especially given there were people who spoke their language.

Ms Nazari said her experience with the settlement team had also been positive: they had helped her learn  such tasks as how to make appointments with the doctor, use public transport, access Centrelink, and banking.

Lwe Pree too has sung the praises of the settlement program and team.

Lwe Pree was born in Karen state in Myanmar, but was forced to flee with her family at the age of three because of persecution from the army.

She has been in Bendigo for two and a half years now, having arrived with her mother and some of her sisters from a refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Like Mr Mirzaei and Ms Nazari, Lwe Pree found communication the most difficult aspect of coming to Australia: she too spoke no English upon her arrival.

“It was very challenging for the first year,” she said.

But she said the settlement workers from BCHS offered her a lot of help with her education to help her achieve her goals, as well as assistance with everyday living tasks.

She said she had also become involved with Karen youth, which had helped build her confidence.

Now Lwe Pree is studying a pre-university course at Bendigo TAFE and works as a part-time research assistant, helping gather information on the lives of Karen people living in Australia, the refugee camps, and Myanmar.

She had thought she would like to study nursing at university, but is now leaning more towards social work, saying she wants to be able to help people.

Lwe Pree also hopes to one day reunite with her sisters, who still live in refugee camps.

“I would just like to say I’m so thankful to the Australian government and Bendigo Community Health Services,” she said.

“Because of their help and support my life has totally changed, and it’s so much better.”

Mr Mirzaei and Ms Nazari also said they felt privileged to be able to move to Australia with their children.

“I am very happy living in this country, because I have peace of mind and security I didn’t have before,” Ms Nazari said.

Now they want to build a good life here in Australia.

Ms Nazari said she hoped for a happy life with her family, and her children to go to university and enjoy the opportunities that had not been available to her.

After learning English, Mr Mirzaei wants to go on to vocational training and find a job.

“In Australia, there are lots of opportunities, and if you work hard you can get them,” he said.

“I’m very hopeful I can have a happy life for myself and my family.”

With BCHS anticipating it will continue to deliver settlement services beyond the new five-year contract, Ms Street hopes to see more people come to Bendigo.

She said working in settlement services was a “very rewarding” job, especially when seeing young refugees go on to higher education and work, people buying their own homes, and families reunite.

“One of the lovely things is hearing a team member call someone and say, ‘Your mum’s coming, she’s got an arrival date’ or ‘Your children are coming’,” Ms Street said.