SANTILLA CHINGAIPE

For skilled pro­fes­sion­als forced to flee coun­tries such as Syria, the chal­lenges they face get­ting their qual­i­fi­ca­tions cer­ti­fied in Aus­tralia harm the wider com­mu­nity as much as they harm them.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Santilla Chingaipe.

Bashir Mo­hamad Ah­mad spent 30 years work­ing as a doc­tor in Syria, spe­cial­is­ing in in­ter­nal medicine.

He says he was forced to flee Syria with his wife and four chil­dren af­ter Daesh started tar­get­ing pro­fes­sion­als.

“Be­fore I left Syria, there was a lot of war and they tar­geted doc­tors and en­gi­neers and teach­ers,” Ah­mad says.

Ah­mad set­tled in Mel­bourne in

2014 but, thus far, he has been un­able to work in his area of ex­per­tise.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to not work. In Syria, I used to work for 16 hours, six days a week,” he says.

“There are a lot of bar­ri­ers for me to get a job. The first bar­rier and very dif­fi­cult is English lan­guage. I started study­ing English here in Aus­tralia and to be hon­est there is no spe­cific care for us for pro­fes­sion­als in a med­i­cal ca­reer to learn English.”

The 59-year-old says it has been dif­fi­cult to get his qual­i­fi­ca­tions cer­ti­fied as a re­sult. “Ev­ery­thing here re­quires money.”

The ex­ams Ah­mad would have to take cost about $3000 each. “I can’t do any­thing here with­out my reg­is­tra­tion,” he says.

If Ah­mad does raise the nec­es­sary funds to pay for the ex­ams and reg­is­tra­tion, he will still be ap­proach­ing re­tire­ment age and may not be able to prac­tise for as long as he would like.

Bashir Mo­hamad Ah­mad’s story doesn’t sur­prise Norma Medawar.

A for­mer English tu­tor and tour guide in Syria, she, too, fled the con­flict in her home­land and sought refuge in Aus­tralia in 2015.

Her abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate flu­ently in English meant her in­te­gra­tion in Aus­tralia wasn’t as chal­leng­ing as some of her com­pa­tri­ots.

“Most of them, you feel, are not happy,” she says. “They’re not com­fort­able, es­pe­cially in the first year of their ar­rival. They feel lost and they need some­one to talk on their be­half. It’s re­ally sad.”

A spokesper­son for the Depart­ment of So­cial Ser­vices says nearly 18,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq were re­set­tled in the past fi­nan­cial year. They said all the fam­i­lies from the ad­di­tional in­take of 12,000, an­nounced by Tony Ab­bott, have since been re­set­tled in Aus­tralia, with the fi­nal visas granted in March.

Norma Medawar works for Whit­tle­sea Com­mu­nity Con­nec­tions, help­ing to sup­port other Syr­ian mi­grants in Aus­tralia.

She says Syr­i­ans – like many mi­grants and refugees from non-English­s­peak­ing back­grounds – face many hur­dles when they ar­rive in Aus­tralia, with the lan­guage bar­rier top of the list.

Medawar says younger Syr­i­ans are quick to pick up English but the older gen­er­a­tion strug­gle. As a re­sult, many have dif­fi­culty find­ing work.

Cath Scarth, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of AMES Aus­tralia, one of the main set­tle­ment ser­vice providers in the coun­try, says in­abil­ity to find work can also im­pact the men­tal health of refugees.

Scarth says there are many Syr­ian refugees who are highly skilled who can’t get their qual­i­fi­ca­tions cer­ti­fied.

“The process of get­ting qual­i­fi­ca­tions – the whole med­i­cal reg­is­tra­tion process – is long for any­body com­ing from over­seas. It’s a very long process,” she says.

“If they don’t have the so­cial and fi­nan­cial sup­port to do that, then it be­comes very dif­fi­cult. Then it means they end up in a lower-paid, dead-end job, not util­is­ing their skills, and re­ally no­body ben­e­fits. We as a com­mu­nity don’t ben­e­fit, be­cause there’s some­one there that has skills that we don’t utilise.”

Ed­die Mi­callef, the chair­per­son of the Eth­nic Com­mu­ni­ties’ Coun­cil of Vic­to­ria, which rep­re­sents mi­grants and refugees in the state, says the sit­u­a­tion is ridicu­lous. “We’re miss­ing out on so much po­ten­tial to make a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to this coun­try.”

He be­lieves that, apart from the lengthy and ex­pen­sive process to get skills as­sessed, many mi­grants and refugees also ex­pe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“I also think the pro­fes­sional or­gan­i­sa­tions are not help­ful in some cases,” he says. “They do put ob­sta­cles in the way and make it dif­fi­cult on the ba­sis of keep­ing the stan­dards high.”

Mi­callef says highly skilled refugees should have the op­por­tu­nity to work in an an­cil­lary ca­pac­ity while they wait to get their skills as­sessed.

He is also call­ing for re­views of these pro­cesses, to take into con­sid­er­a­tion the unique chal­lenges refugees face com­pared with skilled mi­grants when look­ing for em­ploy­ment in their area of ex­per­tise.

Cath Scarth agrees. She says there are ways of im­prov­ing em­ploy­ment out­comes for refugees by ed­u­cat­ing reg­is­tra­tion boards, univer­si­ties and em­ploy­ers about the chal­lenges they face.

“It’s dif­fi­cult when in some cases peo­ple were not able to bring papers with them. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily the thing that you’re think­ing about bring­ing when you’re flee­ing.”

Norma Medawar says hous­ing is an­other chal­lenge Syr­ian refugees are fac­ing on ar­rival in Aus­tralia.

“The first few months when you ar­rive, it’s re­ally hard to get a house. You don’t have a his­tory here. Many of the refugees are on Cen­tre­link pay­ments, and many land­lords want ten­ants that have jobs, which makes it hard.”

Medawar says her sis­ter ar­rived in Aus­tralia with her hus­band six weeks ago and has been un­able to find per­ma­nent hous­ing.

“She is liv­ing in tem­po­rary hous­ing, which is far from where I live. We can’t help her. We can’t take her any­where be­cause I don’t drive and she can’t go to the GP.”

Adding to the iso­la­tion the cou­ple face liv­ing away from their fam­ily mem­bers is age.

“They are old. She’s my el­dest sis­ter. The hus­band is 70 years old,” Medawar says.

The Vic­to­rian Pub­lic Ten­ants As­so­ci­a­tion says there is a long wait­ing list be­fore refugees can ac­cess pub­lic hous­ing.

“When you look at the wait­ing list, there’s an ar­gu­ment that says the pri­or­ity group is over 55, but they’re not build­ing hous­ing for sin­gle peo­ple and they’re not build­ing hous­ing for large fam­i­lies, and that’s the prob­lem,” says Mark Feenane, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer.

He says there is no growth in the pub­lic hous­ing sec­tor.

“We’re see­ing fam­i­lies now liv­ing in three-bed­roomed places where they’ve got five, six, seven kids. There are fam­i­lies grow­ing and there is nowhere else for them to ac­tu­ally go, so they live in over­crowded sit­u­a­tions and the gov­ern­ment needs to ad­dress the lack of af­ford­able hous­ing,” he says.

“It’s not just this gov­ern­ment; it’s gov­ern­ments plu­ral. There’s a real fail­ure to sup­ply suf­fi­cient pub­lic hous­ing to meet the de­mand and the need and it’s only get­ting worse.”

In a state­ment to The Sat­ur­day Pa­per, the Depart­ment of So­cial

Ser­vices said Syr­ian refugees – like other hu­man­i­tar­ian en­trants – of­ten un­dergo a pe­riod of ad­just­ment dur­ing the early stages of set­tle­ment.

It said its hu­man­i­tar­ian set­tle­ment pro­gram pro­vides early, prac­ti­cal sup­port to refugees on ar­rival and through­out their ini­tial set­tle­ment.

But as many ex­perts work­ing in set­tle­ment ar­eas high­light, the process of sup­port­ing newly ar­rived mi­grants and refugees should be a long-term one. Ad­dress­ing these chal­lenges can achieve greater so­cial and eco­nomic ben­e­fits, not just for refugees but also for the broader com­mu­nity.

For Bashir Mo­hamad Ah­mad, em­ploy­ment isn’t just about con­tribut­ing to his adopted home­land. It also plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in him find­ing mean­ing and pur­pose in life.

“The value of a per­son is by work­ing,” he says. “If you don’t work, ev­ery­thing is bad for you. And you think

• badly about your life.”

“WE’RE MISS­ING OUT ON SO MUCH PO­TEN­TIAL TO MAKE A VALU­ABLE CON­TRI­BU­TION TO THIS COUN­TRY.”

SANTILLA CHINGAIPE is a jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary film­maker.

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