Settling for Nothing Less Than Perfect
2 February 2015 at 9:30 am
As the CEO of an organisation that supports newly arrived immigrants in one of Australia’s fastest growing areas, Jennie Barrera has her hands full. Barrera is this week’s Changemaker.
?Barrera runs the Wyndham Community and Education Centre in Wyndham, a municipality situated in the western fringe of Melbourne.
Over the last decade the population in Wyndham has more than doubled and the influx of people has brought its challenges.
Barerra shared her insights into running an organisation that relies on the support of others in order to be able to offer support itself.
What are you working on at the organisation at the moment?
There’s a couple of different areas we’re working on. One is settlement services and community engagement.
I guess the other big area for us is education, particularly for vulnerable clients and young people.
How long have you been in the sector for?
I’ve been here for 21 years. I started as a teacher in the EAL programs, or what used to be ESL, English as a Second Language.
So I started life as a teacher back in the late 70s and I’ve only ever really worked with newly arrived communities.
Back in the late 70s early 80s I was working with the Indochinese that were arriving in around Collingwood and Richmond.
I then moved out to Wyndham in 1990. Again I was working with people that were newly arrived, from refugee backgrounds mostly, and then I went on to coordinate some of the programs, particularly looking at some of the community engagements, things that added to people’s lives.
Obviously there’s a need when you arrive in a country to learn the language but there are a whole range of other needs that people have as well, it could be related to their children, their education, employment, housing, and even social inclusion – just getting to know other people and having the links to be able to be involved in the community and make connections.
That’s the thing that’s always interested me because I think the English language is one part of a person, it’s not everything.
I got more interested in the needs of people settling in Wyndham, and of course in those days Wyndham wasn’t a primary settlement are for people with refugee backgrounds, they had to briefly go and settle in areas like the inner city, Brimbank or Footscray and move out to Wyndham later on.
But Wyndham has changed over the years and it is now a primary settlement area that settles refugees. Since about the early 2000s it’s been a place of primary settlement.
A lot of people wouldn’t know the challenges that Wyndham faces of having that booming newly arrived refugee population. Can you explain some of the challenges that presents for your organisation?
In the early 2000s that’s when people started to settle in Wyndham from refugee and humanitarian backgrounds as a primary settlement area.
The Government started to settle people here as their first point and that’s when the Burmese, particularly the Karen and Karenni, started coming.
That was challenging then because there weren’t a lot of services in Wyndham because the area wasn’t used to having direct settlement and having new people from those kinds of backgrounds.
That was really challenging and that’s how we actually started the Wyndham Humanitarian Network in 2005.
A group of us got together and said “look, there are no services out here for refugee clients, we need to do something about it”.
We advocated strongly to Government and since around 2006 – 2007 onwards we’ve actually been able to attract quite a lot of services in that area which I think has been great and it’s certainly helped people.
And then you’ve got a whole range of new arrivals that are coming from skilled migration backgrounds, which are a different category, they certainly have their needs but they are different to refugee and humanitarian entrants.
And then in the last 12 to 18 months we’ve had quite a lot of asylum seekers settling in this area, and that’s a different group again with a whole lot of different challenges.
So what are the main ethnic groups that have started to call Wyndham home?
We’ve got communities from Burma, so the Karen, Karenni and Shin are the main ones, and then we’ve got a significant Horn of Africa population out here, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somalian.
We’ve got South Sudanese and Sudanese, but of course when it comes to the African refugees they still have needs but a lot of them are coming out of the traditional settlement category.
Then we have the Iranian, Afghanistan and Iraqi refugees who are usually from the asylum seeker cohort. We also have Vietnamese and Tamil asylum seekers.
How do you find that the Wyndham community in general, the people that have been there for a long time, respond to the newly arrived refugees? Is it a welcoming community?
We’ve had overwhelming support. We’re working closes with AMES, they have a contract with the Government for settling and dealing with ongoing case management of the asylum seekers that are living within Wyndham.
AMES comes along through the Wyndham Humanitarian Network if they have families in need, it might be that they’re in need of clothes for babies or prams, it might be food, it might be emergency relief, it might be clothing, and we generally from here put out a broad email to the community and the support is overwhelming.
People are just fabulous.
What was it that made you want to work in this field?
For me at a very early age, I grew up in the City of Northcote and my neighbours were nearly all newly arrived migrants.
From a very young age I got to meet people from lots of different countries and I was just always interested in people from other cultures. I was interested in their languages, their cultural backgrounds, their religious practices.
When I finished school that was the field I wanted to work in and I was just automatically led into that area really.
And what keeps you in this field?
I love the challenge, I love the variety, I love working with people from diverse backgrounds.
In this role I get to meet hundreds of people from all over the world and I love that. I love learning about people, I think you never stop learning.
There’s a buzz in being able to help people and being able to troubleshoot problems and find solutions and I think that’s what keeps me going.
What are the most challenging parts of the job?
I think one of the biggest challenges is working in an area that is a growth area.
When funding gets tight that’s always a challenge for the community sector to be able to keep delivering quality programs so I guess we just need to keep looking at ways that we can do things differently.
The work never stops, that’s a challenge to. Being able to switch off sometimes is difficult because you could work for 24 hours and still not get everything done.
What do you consider your greatest achievement to be?
I think setting up the Wyndham Humanitarian Network would be one of our biggest achievements.
It’s a huge network that does a lot of great work and I think it’s been a really sustainable model. This will be its 10 year and it’s still a dynamic network.
I also think the growth of this centre is a huge achievement. It’s grown and diversified so much and I think it’s doing some great things in the area.
What’s something you’re always being asked?
I’m always being asked to link people to other people. We get a lot of people knocking on the door saying “hi, we heard about you, just wondering if we could ask what it is you do and who do I need to talk to if I want to get this done?”
I think we’ve become a really strong referral and a linkage point for connecting people within the community.
What’s your ultimate goal through the work you’re doing?
Our dream is to improve our infrastructure. We’re across 16 venues throughout Wyndham and (neighbouring municipality) Hobsons Bay, so one of our dreams would be to consolidate at least half of those venues into one building so that we’ve got a lot of staff working out of the same venue.
What about personally? What would be your personal goal?
The big ticket item on my bucket list is to finish my PhD. I’m studying history but also doing some studies in education.
What or who inspires you?
Good work inspires me. People who give selflessly of themselves to communities, that inspires me.
People who do good deeds not for self gain but to benefit the people they work with, that’s the kind of thing that inspires me.