Along with 300 other delegates, I attended a two-day Cultural Shift: from settlement to belonging conference last week at Sydney Olympic Park. It was a cross sector conference organised by Settlement Services International about migrant and refugee families. Delegates included a mix of government and community sector representatives and academics, all mingling and sharing ideas. The conference was a shining example of the benefits of cross-sector exchange. It had an inclusive and friendly vibe allowing us to hear from new and more experienced voices in the sector.
The keynote speaker, Australian Navy Captain Mona Shindy gave a fascinating insight into her trailblazing life and her achievements working in the Navy. She is a testament to determination, hard work and resilience. And she certainly has had to draw on her inner strength, particularly when she began to wear a headscarf at her workplace. “I never thought a $25 headscarf would cause such excitement!”. Her determination to “live all of my truth” is inspiring, and her call to let go of the familiar is timely in our super-diverse world. The inclusion of a plenary session on diversity titled “Can we truly belong” reminded us of the intersectional issues in settlement.
I presented my research on refugee mentoring at the conference. I outlined an updated refugee mentoring typology (see below) which now has a new relationship called Colonising to reflect that some mentors come with a need to direct their mentees. I have also changed the title of the deepest relationship from Faithful to Immersive to reflect the reciprocity of this type of relationship rather than a benefactor/receiver mode of communication.
Diagram 1: Refugee Mentoring Typology (Bellemore, 2017)
A key ‘take home’ messages from my talk was to invite services to reconsider the impact of risk management and its effect on how refugees are positioned. I encouraged program makers to give a voice to refugees in their programs by for instance including them on reference groups and in evaluations. An example of a n approach which cements a power imbalance is where mentors “report” on their contact even though the aim of the mentoring program is a reciprocal relationship. Feedback on my talk included a question about risk management in relation to child protection and grooming. It is an important question and one which I know practitioners deal with through national police checks and child safety checks, rules about contact with children and mentors not babysitting children. Another question was in relation to refugee independence and it is an area I will be considering more deeply. What constitutes “dependence” and who decides whether someone is dependent– the refugee or person seeking asylum, the community service worker or the mentor? An audience member shared a situation where a mentor overstepped their expertise gave advice on an immigration issue which was contrary to the worker’s advice. Great to hear delegates discussing the challenges and complexities of these relationships.
Jenny Grey, Helen Ledlin and a community friend, Del presented from Gymea Community Aid on their community friendship program between local community members and new settlers. It was heartwarming to hear local volunteer Del speak about her first meal prepared with love by her new friend and the range of small acts of being together such as walking to lose weight and Del’s hopes to teach her friend to swim. Great to hear that local organisations such as netball clubs reaching out to assist refugees with free uniforms and waiving fees. Helen ended the presentation with a beautiful quote by Lilia Watson;
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together
What is refugee mentoring?
Refugee Mentoring (also known as be-friending) is where a trained community volunteer is linked with a refugee or a refugee family. The intention is to develop a close personal relationship and at its best a loyal and long-term friendship. It is an embodied and relational process with an emphasis on a reciprocal relationship. Typically mentors are asked to make an initial six-month commitment and are supported by the mentoring organization for between six months and a year. After this the relationship may form into a long-term friendship or it may end. Mentoring can be for a specific purpose, for a set period of time or a long-term ongoing friendship.
Everyday activities mentors and mentees engage with include practicing spoken and written English, learning how to catch public transport, navigating the local area and identifying relevant community services. Depending on the program the sites of these activities vary and can include homes of the mentor or mentee, public spaces such as libraries or school yards or higher learning spaces.
Refugee mentoring differs from the traditional volunteer relationship in that it can have an intimacy that volunteering or paid community work rarely encourages. I am interested in the everyday nature of the relationship and how it might assist ontological security (the ability to be yourself). Often refugee settlement is measured by concrete outcomes, particularly employment, language acquisition and housing. Intangibles such as friendships, feeling welcomed and “at ease” are less explored and yet these are central to a sense of belonging and an ability to be yourself.
Refugee Mentoring Typology
My Masters of Research thesis was on the Tibetan Mentoring Program based on the northern beaches of Sydney. The research revealed a multitude of ways that mentoring can assist refugees in everyday tasks. The research also highlghted that relationships varied considerably and I proposed a typology of mentoring to broadly reflect the types of mentoring relationships (see diagram below).
In order to further test the typology and develop a more nuanced approach to refugee mentoring I have extended the focus of my PhD research to encompass three case study refugee mentoring programs run by small, medium and large non-government and faith-based organisations.
Diagram 1: Refugee Mentoring Typology (Bellemore, 2014)
Bellemore, P. (2014). Shaking Shangri-La: The Tibetan Mentoring Case Study, MRes Thesis, Macquarie University, Sydney.
With 12,000 Syrian refugees coming to Australia in the next year or two it is timely to reflect on how communities can best assist settlement and integration. While Australia is renowned for its world-class settlement services there are limited opportunities for local people to mix and help refugees settle and integrate.
An important concept is welcome. What does welcome look like and how long does it last? What kind of relationship do refugees expect and what actually happens when they are “welcomed” by refugee mentors from receiving communities. What helps? This year, I will be asking refugee mentees these questions in three states of Australia. I know from reading research that contact with the local community is something many refugees crave yet it is an area of research largely neglected by academics.It can be more complex than we think despite goodwill.
Sometimes we imagine that welcoming refugees will be full of joyous dinners, beautiful multicultural food and laughter and fun. And often this is the case. But also it can be bewildering experience with many lost in translation moments that are bemusing for everyone. It can include misunderstandings about times to meet, where to meet, what will be happening and the length of the relationship. I am sure many of you will have heard of immigrants being asked to “bring a plate” to a dinner and arriving with a plate and not a plate of food. It can be at times hard work. Speaking with someone with low level English can be exhausting.
While some people are culturally aware we need to assist those who are willing but may not be culturally aware to develop their cultural awareness and mentoring skills. While we can focus on a deficit model with refugees, mentoring is not about fixing trauma – it is about building a supportive relationship where mentees are seen as whole human being with capabilities. I draw here on Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s ideas of human capabilities that transcend tangible outcomes. Currently most refugee mentoring program provide from one to four days of training. Sometimes there is ongoing support through debriefing via group meetings or telephone support but not always.
With much goodwill towards our new Syrian refugees we need to harness the warmth and compassion and ensure those who want to help can be fully supported. Essential too is that efforts are made to give information to our new settlers about what concepts like mentoring mean and be clear that their involvement is voluntary. The meaning of welcome is a conversation that is ongoing and iterative and one I will be sharing more with you as my research progresses this year.