Targeting Refugee & Asylum Seeker Potential
11 August 2015 at 10:59 am
The time is right to reactivate a Foundation that invests in asylum seekers and refugees and shows them to be more than just a visa type, writes Violet Roumeliotis, the CEO of Settlement Services International.
This week Settlement Services International (SSI) is launching the SSI Foundation to provide targeted support through education scholarships and grants programs so people from a refugee and asylum seeker background can settle successfully into the Australian community.
The focus of the foundation is to minimise the impact of structural disadvantage often experienced by asylum seekers living in the community awaiting the resolution of their visa status and by refugees during the early settlement phase.
The SSI Foundation is the second incarnation of a foundation SSI established in its early years when, even though it was no longer providing humanitarian settlement services, there was a strong belief that its vision and values were relevant.
SSI invested its remaining funds and established a national foundation that became the Connect Australia Foundation. The goal was to finance refugee education scholarships and specific projects for small refugee groups who had no infrastructure but a desire to meet their community’s needs.
We successfully funded areas such as journalism, health programs, the arts and theatre while keeping SSI engaged with its constituency.
When SSI was refunded through the Humanitarian Settlement Services program in 2011 the organisation no longer had the means to continue the foundation but the Board made a commitment to restart it when the time was right. That time is now.
SSI has grown from a staff of 65 and one program area in 2012 to 500 staff working on eight program areas in 2015. Fifteen months ago we consulted with SSI Board, our member Migrant Resource Centres (MRC) and other stakeholders, and determined the priorities for a reactivated foundation.
Our vision is that the SSI Foundation is an opportunity for SSI to fund others to complement the tremendous work SSI and its partner organisations alongside civil society already does for refugees and asylum seekers.
The foundation will be an important component of the work of SSI, which invests its surplus funds on community engagement and charity activities. We are committed to funding those activities because they add value and because we believe we have an obligation to give something back to our communities, to add value and to intervene and support social cohesion through sport, food, work, arts and culture.
The foundation is our commitment to supporting people beyond our organisation; those who put their hand up and say they want to do something innovative for refugees and asylum seekers; things that might not be a priority for Government. It will be a vehicle for small, emerging communities to access funds and to be self-determined with how they allocate it. It will be a vehicle for organisations, perhaps activist organisations, to develop a wider audience for the positive contribution asylum seekers make to the Australian community.
The SSI Foundation will be a forum for innovation and to show that asylum seekers and refugees are more than a visa type. They are actually people who have had life experiences, people with cultures and histories centuries-old. They come to Australia with passions and talents and skills and a fire to make this country their home, and to give something back.
The SSI Foundation reflects the key focus areas of SSI and its MRC members, particularly education. We want to provide opportunities for young people to finish their schooling and for schools to have the resources to tailor their programs so there will be educational outcomes for children newly arrived in Australia.
For asylum seekers’ kids who have only known life in a camp, who come to Australia and are told to sit at a desk, pay attention and not move. We hope the foundation can fund schools to support an educational approach that fits the needs of the children in this new environment, rather than make them fit in with the mainstream.
As with the original foundation, SSI feels it is important to honour those who have made significant contributions to their communities.
We established two scholarships one for women and one for men. The scholarship for females has been named the Claudette Elaro Refugee Women’s Scholarship to honour Claudette Elaro, a leading women’s and refugee advocate who died in 2008. To this day, Claudette is respected for her unwavering commitment to seeking justice for the basic human rights of all people. She showed us that, with immense dignity, optimism, passion and self-respect, one can rise above adversity and life’s many challenges.
The scholarship for men is named the Patrick Koffa Scholarship in honour of Patrick Koffa, a young refugee from Liberia who drowned at City Beach, Wollongong, in March 2009. Despite his youth, Patrick was able to achieve a balance of study, employment and community life and had a vision to one day return to Liberia to “help his fellow countrymen”.
Importantly, the scholarships reflect our fundamental view that everyone has the right to meet their potential and to live the life they want to live, whether they want to be a carpenter, a nurse or a neuro-surgeon.
I remember how, at the time of the Connect Australia Foundation, a young Muslim woman from the Hunter impressed us because she had an interest in her community and in women and gender politics. She also had a passion for writing. But she had no tools. We offered her the funds to buy a laptop so she could write at home, where she could also fulfil her other responsibilities.
She went to university, where she studied communications and became active in writing blogs and producing newsletters.
There was a great sense of excitement about that because we were building people’s capacity and supporting them in their passion.
Our interest then and now is not just for those individuals, as valuable as that may be, but also for people who can give something back with the skills, tools or knowledge they acquire.
I believe, through the work of the SSI Foundation, SSI can achieve its vision of a society that values the diversity of its people and actively provides support to ensure meaningful social and economic participation, as well as helping individuals and families reach their potential.
About the author: Violet Roumeliotis is CEO of Settlement Services International and a member of Pro Bono Australia’s 2014 Impact 25. She has an extensive background in advocating for and developing services for vulnerable and at-risk communities and individuals – with more than thirty years' involvement, in both a professional and voluntary capacity, in human resource and project management. In particular, she has developed specialised knowledge and skills in working with people of a non-English speaking backgrounds and culturally diverse communities, refugees and humanitarian entrants, families in crisis, women and children at risk.