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Refugee Week casts light on the globally displaced, but also the internally displaced, Australia’s First Nations people

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There exists a connection between new arrivals and Australia’s First Nations communities. These connections can foster healing and enhanced belonging.

The death of George Floyd triggered protests across the world, sparking the global movement, #BlackLivesMatter.

While watching the extensively broadcast death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin, I was heartbroken and reflected on how this might mark a turning point in racial relations, including the situation of Australia’s internally displaced, its Indigenous communities.

As a refugee, displacement isn’t anything foreign or new. However, I am shocked by the high rate of Indigenous imprisonment and by Indigenous deaths in custody. I stand in solidarity with Indigenous people and their demands of justice and equality.

The refugee journey to Australia 

I arrived in Australia as a refugee in December 2016 with my parents, brothers and sister as a family unit of seven from Iraq after spending three years in Jordan.

Before we had fled the crisis in Iraq in 2013, my family led a comfortable life. Other than our youngest family member who has Down syndrome, all members of the family were educated with stable jobs.

Life in Jordan wasn’t easy. Imagine that your whole life is on hold. You don’t have the rights to work or study; there is nothing you can do to distract yourself from this feeling of eternal displacement.

After three years in limbo, we were delivered a message of hope: our humanitarian visa application to Australia was accepted. It’s hard to put the feeling of receiving this news into words. We rejoiced, but we felt mixed emotions; happiness with fear.

Happiness for a new beginning and future; fear about what the new country, the community, would be like.

Our fears were short-lived, as on arrival to Australia we felt instantly welcomed to the country by Settlement Services International (SSI), who received us at Sydney airport. SSI helped us with our luggage, took us to our new home in Mount Druitt and provided us with two years of case management support. We felt relief and gratitude for being in Australia.

Starting a new life in Australia

Refugee Week, June 14 to June 20, aims to create better understanding between different communities and to encourage successful integration, enabling refugees to live in safety and to continue making a valuable contribution to Australia. This year’s Refugee Week theme is “Celebrating the Year of Welcome”.

According to new research by SSI and Western Sydney University (WSU), refugees report a very strong sense of feeling welcome in Australia and feeling part of the Australian community.

Unlike the experience of many Indigenous Australians, refugees in the study generally feel they are treated fairly and equally in exercising their rights and accessing government and essential services.

Participants pointed out how support and interactions both within and beyond their ethnic or religious communities contributed to their sense of welcome and belonging.

Overall, the findings suggest refugees, despite language barriers, are developing social bridges through friendship networks and have a positive sense of welcome and trust in neighbours and neighbourhoods even at a relatively early stage of settlement.

This has definitely been my experience.

I had few dreams before I came to Australia: first to reach Australia, second to work and, third, to do a PhD in astronomy.

Like most new arrivals, when I arrived in Australia, I was eager to find suitable employment. Yet, despite having a master’s degree in astronomy and substantial work experience back in Baghdad, where I had worked at the ministry of science and technology, I wasn’t able to secure employment in my field.

Within a year, I was accepted into WSU to undertake my PhD under the supervision of Professor Miroslav Filipovic, who I had met at a sheer stroke of luck after sending an inquiry email to the Penrith observatory. Prof Miroslav Filipovic also happened to be the Chair of the observatory and showed an interest in my background and invited me to meet him the very next day.

He asked if I’d be interested in undertaking a PhD in astronomy.

This question took me by surprise. I didn’t expect an offer out of the blue. Naturally, I told him that it was my dream.

Today, as a full-time PhD student of astronomy, my research covers the field of radioastronomy and the subject of supernova remnants. I recently made an exciting discovery of the first moving pulsar in The Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy near the Milky Way, which is visible from Earth. This discovery has seen my research published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, one of the leading peer-reviewed astronomy journals.

The intersection between Indigenous communities and refugees

Although our situation as refugees is different to Australia’s First Nations people and we were forced to flee our country due to security issues rather than because of dispossession and systematic oppression, there are some common threads between our experiences of displacement.

According to the research by SSI and WSU, almost two-thirds of refugees find it easy to understand the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first people of Australia.

I believe this connection between new arrivals and Australia’s First Nations communities, refugees in their own land, can foster healing and enhanced belonging.

By connecting with people from different walks of life and getting to know the person behind the label, we have the opportunity to see that there are no gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities — just people, coming together to respect, accept and trust each other.

I feel immense gratitude towards Australia, a multicultural country that is rooted in the culture of its traditional owners, the First Nations people, for welcoming me and allowing me to restart my life.

Now, against the backdrop of COVID-19, more than ever is the time to call for change, globally and locally, to address the 70.8 million people worldwide that have been forcibly displaced, and the internal displacement of Australia’s First Nations people.

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