Creating a sense of belonging
21 June 2021 at 4:23 pm
To mark Refugee Week, this week’s Changemaker is Sri Samy, the founder and CEO of Friends of Refugees, an organisation committed to creating better lives for refugees and asylum seekers.
When Sri Samy started volunteering at refugee organisations 12 years ago as a way to give back to the community and take a break from her career as an architect, she didn’t think that one day she would be running her own charity.
Migrating to Australia from India after an arranged marriage, Samy knew how hard it was to move to a new country without any connections or support. What she didn’t know however, was how many recently arrived migrants and refugees lived without basic household items such as beds or a fridge.
In the worst cases, she saw pregnant women and families with children sleeping on bare floors and living in overcrowded housing because they could not afford to pay rent.
Samy started off by delivering food and goods with the help of a small group of volunteers to people in need. But backed by a groundswell of community support, Friends of Refugees (FOR) was officially launched in 2014.
These days the charity is registered, and operates social enterprises that support and empower the refugee and asylum seeker community in Melbourne’s southeast, and runs numerous community, employment and training, and advocacy programs.
The charity is also about to launch a new program, Growing Friends, a community garden project providing a space to teach people how to grow their own fruit and veg, and heal trauma through community connection. The food from Growing Friends will be shared among the growers during fortnightly food swap meets, with friends from the wider community also welcomed.
In this week’s Changemaker, Samy discusses her unexpected journey to making a change, harnessing her strengths in difficult times, and why self care is critical for social change leaders.
How did you get into the job you’re in now?
It’s something that just happened naturally. I was on a break from work as an architect to look after my daughter who was unwell with severe asthma. Staying home all the time was quite a difficult adjustment for me as I’d never not worked. I started looking at volunteering around migrant and refugee women because of my own experience of coming here as a migrant woman. I could empathise with people who didn’t have the skills or language to set themselves up in a new country.
I started volunteering for the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition and women’s support groups, and it made me realise how much of a need there was for material aid. It pretty much became a seven day a week job because there was just so much need out there and so many people living in the community without basic support at that time. The worst case was finding a woman, seven months pregnant, sleeping on the floor because she couldn’t afford rent for her own place.
At first I was using my own money to fund the work I was doing, but then people started donating money, and I knew it was important to be accountable, so then we registered the organisation officially.
How have your previous jobs and life experiences informed your leadership of FOR?
It was more of a life experience. I migrated to Australia with no connections, so I knew how hard it was to find your feet. I also lost my son at birth, and you don’t expect that kind of tragedy at all. It really made me think about what I was doing in my life, because whatever I had done didn’t help me save my son. So I completely lost interest in working in the architectural sector, and I was interested in helping people.
How do you manage challenges in your job and stay grounded as a leader?
It was incredibly hard when we started because I had not worked in the community sector before. But I was good at project management, a skill I had learnt through architecture, so I was able to plan the work well and execute it. But I really had no intention of setting up a charity, I was just helping people, and then a lot of people started supporting the work we were doing and I had to just figure it out. But I have always had people around who can help, or I can turn to for advice, and I’m very, very grateful for the support that we receive. We’ve also got a very supportive board, our chairperson is very experienced and she’s always happy to help out.
What do you love most about your job at FOR?
I just like the fact that I’m actually making a tangible difference for people. I also love the fact that the people who come here, no matter how much they’ve been through, they all have a positive attitude and smile and are really willing to help each other. We don’t really promote our work, all members are through word of mouth so it’s almost like a family. We feel very connected and people reach out to me when they’re happy, or when something’s not going well. It’s about creating a sense of belonging, and it makes me happy that we’ve been able to achieve that.
And when you’re not at FOR, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I call it the three p’s: people, pets and plants. I really just love spending time with my friends and my pets, and my house is an indoor forest. So that’s what I do. I didn’t know about self care for a very long time and I was really struggling. But now I’m pretty good at taking some time for myself.