Cultural Shift Conference, August 2017

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

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