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06 Sep 2016


From the CEO – One year on from ‘the Syrian 12,000’

SSI CEO Violet Roumeliotis.

The news followed an outpouring of grief from people across the country – and indeed all around the world – over a heartbreaking photograph of Alan Kurdi, a toddler who died on the edges of the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach safety in Europe.

The image of the three-year-old Syrian refugee marked a tipping point in public sentiment about the growing number of forcibly displaced people globally, which was quickly reaching a record high.

It forced people to consider their own ethics; to reflect on what right and wrong means in a world where someone is so desperate to reach safety that they feel they have no other option but to entrust the lives of their family to a stranger with a boat.

Over the past year, there has been a lot of public reflection on the additional intake of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and what this means for Australia.

As one of the leading providers of the federally funded Humanitarian Settlement Services program, SSI is right at the frontline. In the past year alone, we’ve helped thousands of new arrivals to begin their lives in Australia; and this number is rapidly increasing each day, as more and more refugees from Syria and Iraq arrive.

Our job is to help refugees navigate the early stages of life in a new country, by providing essential support such as accommodation and food packages, and helping refugees to find their feet and connect with networks in their local community. We also play a massive role in supporting these new arrivals to find work, which they identify as their top settlement goal.

Ethics are an important part of that service. Every SSI staff member and volunteer is accountable for their work and upholds professional practices – something that continues well after refugees have graduated from our service. This integrity is critical to ensuring vulnerable new community members receive the right support while working their way towards independence.

Last week, one of our newest MPs, Linda Burney, drove home for me exactly why it is so important to adhere to a set of moral and ethical principles.

Ms Burney is the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Ms Burney wove her heritage throughout her maiden speech to Parliament, explaining that the speech was an opportunity to set out “what has made you, what you believe in and what you stand for”.

And she did just that. Ms Burney spoke candidly about the need for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and about the wrongs committed against Aboriginal people since European settlement, touching on everything from massacres in colonial Australia to the discrimination she herself has experienced.

As the child of an unmarried white mother and an Indigenous father, Ms Burney has faced her fair share of prejudice but as she put it: “these experiences have been the catalyst for my subsequent life as an advocate for education and social justice. The Aboriginal part of my story is important. It is the core of who I am, but I will not be stereotyped and I will not be pigeonholed”.

This sentiment is one I regularly hear from the refugees SSI supports; there is no denying that the experience of fleeing your home country is life changing, but being a refugee is not the be-all and end-all of a person’s identity.

Whether you’ve spent one year or 10 years living as a refugee, you remain a multi-faceted person with potential that extends far beyond a period in which you’ve been forced to seek sanctuary in another country.

As we welcome more refugees to our shores, it’s important that we retain our focus on integrity and on our shared humanity. Behind each refugee label is a person like you or I – or Alan Kurdi – who has left behind everything they know in search of safety.

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