Australia has been reportedly notorious for its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially in cases on physical, sexual, and psychological abuse in the controversial detention centres such as that of Manus island and Nauru. Protests have taken place in different parts of Sydney, with a strong call to the Australian government to take action and to #BringThemHere.
The modern refugee crisis remains a pressing issue today, given the mass displacement of huge numbers of people all over the world. In Sydney, an international Australiasia conference was held last November 11 last year at the St. Andrew’s Cathedral to discuss how to address the modern refugee crisis.
Guest speakers included forensic psychologist Randa Abdelsayed of the GROW program, which is a mental health initiative that focuses on mental health issues of refugees and aiding them in adjusting to a new life in Australia.
The conference finished with a presentation on Refugee Talent, an organisation that provides a digital platform that will enable refugees to connect with Australian employers.
Co-founder and CEO Anna Robson has worked in the Nauru detention centre for Save the Children, while Nirary Dacho*, co-founder of Refugee Talent, has had 8 years’ experience working in IT and has served as a Manager for the Assyrian Human Rights Network.
Both Robson and Dacho came up with the idea of setting up this digital platform in order to help refugees who are struggling to find work and those who struggle to adjust to the Australian work environment.
Mental health awareness in Australia
Aside from the legal processes involved in bringing refugees to Australia, another issue is how to best help them adjust accordingly to a new environment. One aspect of that is on assessing mental health.
In 2012, Australia had its first National Mental Health Commission, which aims to provide independent reports to both the government and the Australian public on mental health awareness and providing adequate services that address the issue.
A mental health statement of rights and responsibilities was also provided by the Department of Health, which states the inherent dignity and equal protection rights of all “mental health consumers”. Moreover, the mental health statement emphasises on non-discrimination policies and social inclusion of such mental health consumers. It stresses the importance of recognising that mental health has to be prioritised the way physical well-being is, and that mental health consumers must have access to rehabilitation programs and proper counselling.
An Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights was also adopted in 2008 by the Australian government, stating seven basic rights: access to healthcare services, safety and high quality of such services, respect for all people, open communication, participation, protection of the individual’s privacy, and the right for individuals to comment or complain in the way they are cared for. Different states in Australia has various modifications regarding mental health legislation, which is elaborated on in a research paper on mental health legislation and human rights.
In the context of the refugee crisis, refugees coming to Australia are first brought to the Settlement Services International, where they are assessed on the state of their mental health and if further medical assistance is needed. If so, they are either brought to government-funded organisations. Some are referred to specific psychologists or psychiatrists.
On mental health and the GROW program
The GROW program is a community-based organisation that aims to help refugees recover from mental health issues — such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder—upon arriving in the country. In a nutshell, the aim of the program is to provide a series of seminars and group meetings that provide mutual support and personal development. It was established in Sydney in 1957 and has helped thousands of Australians since then. It has also established offices in Ireland, New Zealand, Trinidad, and America. Their main office in Australia is based in Queensland.
Dr. Randa Abdelsayed, a forensic psychologist of the GROW program, elaborated more on the context of the modern refugee crisis and what the program can do for refugees who are struggling to recover from the horrors of the war-torn countries they fled—and to eventually adjust to a new country that will be their new home.
“It’s a mental health humanitarian initiative,” Abdelsayed elaborates. “It looks at equipping people who participate in the program with basic life skills, if you like. It looks at the way people think, how they can, I guess, perceive and adjust their emotional responses. It looks at how people behave in response to certain things in their environment, how they relate to other people, and what their spiritual perspective with what they’re going through is like.”
Pictured: Doctor Randa Abdelsayed
What makes the GROW program different from other mental health initiatives is that it is tailored specifically for refugees, especially those coming from difficult situations, such as having to fled from a war-torn country, having to leave behind certain family members, or having to recover from a natural disaster. This includes refugees from Syria and Northern Iraq, among many others.
Initiatives and challenges
The GROW program is evidence-based, given that it was based on decades of research, working and talking with refugees, along with a team of psychologists who tailor it to specific needs of refugees. Activities are both discussion-based and consists of group activities and demonstrations.
Different scenarios are given and analysed in such discussions. “For example, there is, say, a man who just received a job in a refugee camp, and we look at how his perspective can change the outcome of a situation, like if he was focused on things he is grateful for, or if he is solution-focused, trying to help himself and his community...versus complaining and having an attitude of entitlement,” explains Abdelsayed.
Yet, even with all the results and initiatives, it also comes with its own challenges.
A sudden change in environment and of cultural background requires adjusting one’s mindset, which proves to be difficult. The GROW program poses certain questions in helping the individual move past this: “What can I use from my background that can help in adjusting? What do I bring that will be valuable? What hinders me from fully adjusting?”
“Some families are fearful in a new environment, especially in a Western culture,” Abdelsayed adds. “The values are different, expectations are different, the way they raise their children. There is a tendency for some groups to just withdraw or become their own community, even to just withdraw to their family members.”
Despite the fact that Australia takes pride in its multicultural society, communities within communities still exist and can hinder people from mingling with others of different cultural backgrounds or in improving their English. “I remember bringing families from Syria and Iraq, looking for accommodation and there was such a huge demand on Fairfield, because there’s so many Iraqis, or because they have family members there, or because all the shops have Arabic signs, the doctors speak the language. You literally don’t have to know English.” She says.
Pictured: Doctor Randa Abdelsayed.
In the pursuit of authentic hope
Another aspect that the GROW program focuses on is on having authentic hope and—for those with religious affiliations—to develop their spiritual growth.
The first session starts with a metaphor that sets the tone for the rest of the sessions that these group discussions and activities run on.
“If you need a good tree to grow, you need to start with the seed, and to attend to the soil and the environment,” Abdelsayed says. “You need sunlight and water and nutrition. These are all metaphors for a willing mind, a teachable spirit, and getting rid of unhelpful thoughts and replacing those with good, helpful ideas.”
*Due to unforeseen circumstances, Mr. Dacho was unable to attend the conference on short notice. However, his presentation on Refugee Talent was still given by a volunteer representative.
Learn more about GROW here.