A Place to Call Home
19 June 2017 at 8:35 am
Eugenia Tsoulis OAM is the CEO of the Australian Migrant Resource Centre, the leading settlement agency in South Australia. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Tsoulis understands firsthand the challenges of starting a life in a new country after she moved to Australia from Greece when she was a child. She has gone on to help thousands of migrants settle into Australia.
In a career spanning across decades she has worked in multicultural policy development, education, mental health, the arts and industrial relations.
She was director of the Migrant Workers Centre, a research consultant for the former Office of Multicultural Affairs, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and she is a co-founder of the Settlement Council of Australia (SCoA).
Tsoulis is also a published author and printmaker and is represented in various publications and in art galleries in Australia and overseas.
In recognition of her work, she was awarded the order of Australia in 1994 for services to multiculturalism and the arts. She was also named the ZONTA Woman of the Year Award in 2007 and received the Outstanding Individual Achievement award at the Governor’s Multicultural Awards in 2011.
She is currently the chief executive officer of the Australian Migrant Resource Centre, responsible for the delivery of statewide on-arrival and general humanitarian settlement and community engagement services.
In this week’s Changemaker, Tsoulis talks about the importance of Refugee Week, why you can’t become part of the mainstream if you haven’t first connected with the people that you feel can support you most and how she has the best of all worlds.
You migrated to Adelaide from Greece when you were a child, how has that experience shaped how you approach your work?
I think as a young child migrant coming to Australia with parents just after a civil war in Greece, it has obviously shaped my understanding of human rights and social justice issues. Because, to a large extent, most migrants when they first arrive in Australia find, for example, just the physical environment very, very different from most of the countries that they come from. And I talk about migrants in general, whether they have come as $10 migrants or they came as non official refugees from the second world war in Europe, or they have come as more formalised refugees through the UNHCR or have come seeking asylum. The various ways they have come.
The reception they receive, as good as it can be, from more established Australians, navigating the physical environment of a local area and navigating the legal and social and cultural and recreational environment as we know it in Australia, is really quite foreign to most people. And that has been expressed to me, by people who have even come from England or America. It takes time to become part of a community, it takes time to understand the requirements, the cultural nuances and also to actually speak English. It amazes me when people talk about refugees needing to learn English to become Australian, for some older people who arrive in Australia, they’re never going to be able to speak English more than to say a few words because many of them who have come weren’t able to get an education, they may be illiterate in their own language, others find the English language very, very hard, so there are degrees. And also even when we, as people who have got tertiary qualifications and are quite educated, try to learn another language, it is a very difficult process except if you are a linguist and it normally takes seven years to a decade to become proficient in another language and one’s accent doesn’t appear to ever disappear.
So for sure the community that I came to was a very small community, it was the Greek community in South Australia. It was a very small community, it bound all its members together because we felt part of and connected to each other, to support each other, we had all come through a similar experience from the ravages of war and civil war. And as children, and young people – and I think that this is very pertinent – we tend to talk about refugees as if they are all adults and to some extent have made the decision to flee and to go into exile, or to try and seek asylum. But [for] the children of those refugees [it is not] the same, they haven’t been asked whether they want to go, they can’t stay because they are underage and they don’t want to leave. And we work very, very closely with young people here who have left their friends, their education, their extended family and the environment that they knew. And it is extremely hard, particularly as young people become adolescents, to let those past relationships go and to be left with very little except the nuclear family when they arrive. I don’t think we know how difficult it is and until recently too, the settlement process didn’t really target them and ask them that. They also have different responsibilities when they are here because they tend to be the conduits between the new environment and their parents, because they learn to speak English much faster.
So as a child and as an adolescent growing up in that type of environment, not just myself but many, many other migrants really can appreciate the assistance that new Australians need in order to establish themselves as fast as possible. I think our point is how well we can receive new arrivals and how fast we can fast track them to become independent and connected and feeling a sense of belonging. And that is for men, women, elderly that are coming out now and certainly children and young people.
What role does the community need to play in settlement?
I have had to build an organisation in the Australian Migrant Resource Centre that reflects the faces of new arrivals, so that when they come they can see faces like themselves, and when I say faces, they can look at themselves in the looking glass and say, “Oh yes, I am not amongst total strangers”, straight away. So we employ bilingual, bicultural staff, very highly qualified staff, and we also have over 300 volunteers per year, who support those staff to connect those people to their own community.
New arrivals are the same as anybody else, they want to be connected to people who share the same experiences, maybe of the same religion and perhaps have got the same culture and heritage that they have. It doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be networked and connected to the broader community, but that comes next.
I always say, you can’t become an Australian and be connected to the mainstream and feel part of that mainstream if you haven’t been able to be connected with the people that you feel can support you most, and that is people who can speak your own language. It is a little bit like people in Australia who belong to Rotary or the Catholic Church or whatever, they have their groups that they feel most comfortable with. It doesn’t mean that they don’t work with others, or that they don’t value other groups or that they want to be marginalised and different. But it does mean that they have got the support systems to help them better connect and become Australian and feel very much part of the Australian society.
This week is Refugee Week, why is it important to celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society?
In the last few years we have decided to call Refugee Week a project and get together with over 100 organisations who collaboratively organise about 50 different events around Refugee Week. And we decided to call it A Place to Call Home, because we wanted to celebrate the achievements and also the resilience and the need for those new arrivals to belong, and give them a voice during Refugee Week.
So one of our major events during Refugee Week is In Our Own Voices which is Middle Eastern community members being storytellers. And we have chosen specifically, people who are achievers and who have achieved within a decade some amazing things, even if they have come by boat or they have come through the UNHCR process by plane, and have come from various cultural backgrounds in the middle east.
And so it is extremely important that we highlight that giving them a safe place and giving them a place where they feel that they are protected, that they belong, that they can actually achieve civic, cultural and economic outcomes and also contribute their skills and assets. Because some of them are just brilliant. I mean some of the people that have come are highly, highly qualified in many areas, so it is being able to say look, they have come from these experiences but what they now are, are contributing and outcomes driven Australians.
What does a typical day look like for you as CEO of Australian Migrant Resource Centre?
I have worked in mental health services and the education department and as a student counsellor, and a typical day for me here is, I think my staff picking up people from the airport and bringing them here or taking them home, consulting with people to see how they’re going, working with staff to make sure that our services are continually improved and also so that our connections with community are continually monitored and evaluated. Because it is the client groups who own those communities, and those communities of new and emerging migrants are our bosses, they are our governance in terms of they are the membership that elects our board. So we are directly connected and we have to work with the community leaders. And when I talk about community leaders, I’m talking about women, young people, management committees of men, in dealing with and supporting them to work through their capacity and resources within their own communities, and I love that.
It’s an experiment in how do we actually practically translate what we talk about as multiculturalism, because multiculturalism is about ensuring outcomes from access and equity, it is not just accessing people to services and supports but it is making sure that they receive outcomes. So when I see a young person being able to get an award in their first year from Syria and make a huge contribution to their high school, or somebody being able to get into a PhD or somebody, as we had a couple of weeks ago, who is a mechanical engineer in Syria, here in the first few weeks and we’ve been able to negotiate a job for him. Unfortunately, it in Victoria not South Australia, but with Volkswagen in mechanical engineering. So it’s the outcomes that I just find absolutely amazing, and you can see some of those outcomes in stories on our website. They are not just economic outcomes, they are civic outcomes and educational outcomes.
So a typical day for me is not routine!
What are HMRC’s current priorities?
Our priorities are basically to assist and further the full participation of new Australians that have come through their migration journey and they can be families of refugees or refugees, to participate fully in Australian society and to assist the broader community in australian society to build their capacity to support and positively receive these migrants.
What we want is that they become independent and are able to contribute the assets that they bring with them from overseas. Because these people are hidden assets that we need to support and assist to build our country into a continuous multicultural society, but also it is economic development.
How do you find time for yourself?
I have an extended family, I am a grandmother of six. I write as well as read. But I have what’s called the best of all worlds in that I have a very, very supportive family and some brilliant grandchildren that make me laugh. And then also the bonds and the friendships that have built around being in what is a fairly vivacious type of community. Being able to go to the cultural celebrations of the vast cultural groups that we work with, over about 120 different cultural groups that we work with, to be able to go to the celebrations, to be able to talk with my managers who themselves are all women and many of them with children and having family responsibilities, most of them of different ethnic backgrounds. It is both a privilege and an honour and I enjoy it, it is part of my life.