Courageous Journeys

Portrait of the Kaakahjian family by Saskia Wilson

“With courage let us all combine.”

These words, from the second verse of our national anthem, celebrate strength of character and a spirit of welcome. They were the chosen theme for this year’s Refugee Week and underpin the sentiments of the book Courageous Journeys, a joint effort of Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre (LMRC) and the Melkite Catholic Welfare Association. The book was launched at Glebe Town Hall on Wednesday November 2016, when two buses of refugee families from Liverpool were greeted by a room full of Inner West locals eager to hear their stories.

The idea for Courageous Journeys was conceived by LMRC employees Emma McCarthy and Meredith Stuebe. “Many of the families we work with have been through the unimaginable – long periods of separation and uncertainty, while remaining defiant and strong,” says Emma. “We wanted to create a space where families could reflect on their new home. In a media landscape that can sometimes vilify refugees, we wanted to look to the future and start a conversation centred on inclusion and acceptance.”

The choice to host the book launch in Glebe, rather than South West Sydney where the families reside, was a deliberate one. “We wanted to hold it in a place like Glebe because there’s a big population in the Inner West who are really strong advocates for asylum seeker and refugee rights,” says Emma. “Yet working in a suburb like Liverpool, there seems to be a disconnect between the clients who need to feel that welcome and embrace, and the established Australian communities.”

The book aims to be a catalyst for this embrace, uniting simple storytelling with images to share the families’ settlement experiences in Sydney. It compiles portraits of 14 refugee families taken by Inner West photographer Saskia Wilson, alongside a series of simple statements about the subjects’ proudest achievements and hopes for the future.

One of the families featured is the Kaakahjian family: Mari and Manuel, along with their daughter Anita, moved to Sydney from Aleppo, Syria in July last year. Settling in South West Sydney, where two of their other daughters were already living, has provided the opportunity for the family’s first reunion in years. According to Mari, the family is happier than they have been before.

Nonetheless, settling in a new country later in life has presented its own set of challenges. “I wish that I came here when I was younger,” Mari says. “It would be more easy. I could learn the language faster. I could work – I love work.” As it stands, Mari is a carer for her daughter Anita, who has a disability.

“When it comes to Anita, she’s the winner here,” Manuel says of his eldest daughter. “She’s more comfortable, and the centre she goes to twice a week has made her really happy. All that we have here wasn’t available to us in Syria.”

The opportunities that are available for Anita in Australia have alleviated many of Mari’s concerns for the future. When she speaks, the relief from uncertainty that Australia represents overwhelms her. “For a long time I was thinking about my daughter,” she says. “When I pass away, what’s going to happen to her? I didn’t know what was going to happen to her. But I have come here to Australia, and I feel like I put her in safe hands. I feel like she is secure.”

The family is due to receive support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Anita visits the Young Adult Disabled Association twice a week. This has meant Mari is finding the time to take care of herself for the first time in years. She attends LMRC’s Refugee Women’s Social Group on Tuesday mornings; a social and conversational English class that helps newly arrived women build connections and develop new skills in Australia.

“I feel so excited,” Mari says. “I keep waiting the whole week for Tuesday to come. It feels like coming home to family.” But while the friendship and sense of community has been wonderful for Mari, the most important experience has been learning. “Education is number one,” she says. “I come here and I’m learning bout Australian culture and how people in live in Australia.” Lena, the group’s coordinator, says that Mari has come to the group every week since its inception and regularly arrives half an hour early.

Courageous Journeys has similarly provided an opportunity for the family to immerse itself in new aspects of Australian culture and community. “Anita is so excited about it,” Mari says. “She’s been waiting for the book launch for so long and asks me every day. She feels so special.” Anita’s excitement was contagious on Wednesday night.

Anna, a local from Concord who attended the launch, shares Anita’s enthusiasm. “It was really lovely seeing the families’ excitement and their smiles,” she says. “It brings the issue closer to home and makes it feel very real. I also think it’s fantastic to learn about the amazing things all these different organisations are doing to help. We hear a lot of negativity around refugees, so it’s really nice to see how people in Australia are doing really good things.”

The book’s organisers, Emma and Meredith, are residents of the Inner West, and are drawing on their community connections to foster links between the two communities. “We want to be that bridge between the support in the Inner West and the clients who actually need to feel that in South West Sydney,” Emma says. “Even if it just means there’s somebody there to say: ‘Hi, thanks for sharing your story, it was nice to meet you,’ that’s a really positive interaction that our clients might not have had otherwise.”

After Courageous Journeys, LMRC hopes to continue to develop these connections in a supported environment. “Our clients come to Australia and they’ve obviously been through quite long and traumatic journeys,” Emma says. “Trust is something that can be difficult for them to establish with strangers and with the Australian community. As an organisation that has worked with these communities for a really long time, they know us and they trust us, so we’re trying to partner with a lot more organisations that are based in the Inner West.”

LMRC has also collaborated with the Welcome Dinner Project, based in Newtown, to facilitate welcome dinners for newly arrived migrants with established Australians. “It can be in people’s homes and as simple as asking: ‘Hey, do you want to come around for dinner and me and my family meet you and your family?’” Emma says. “It’s just coming together in a positive environment over food.”

Fostering an atmosphere of positivity and inclusion is key to LMRC’s work. “The refugee communities here are only continuing to grow,” Emma says. “To borrow a sentence from our CEO’s piece in the book – ‘We hope this book generates a positive conversation around welcoming refugees into our community, and acknowledges the strength and courage they bring with them that in turn, strengthens us. Let us be that narrative and make the message of welcome and celebration louder than any other.’”

Words by Natassia Chrysanthos