The meaning of welcome

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.

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