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01 Jun 2016


From the CEO – Welcoming refugees, an inherent part of Australian history

A country built with the help and effort of people who arrived from all corners of the world to join our Indigenous brothers and sisters the traditional owners of the land, contributing to making Australia the safe and prosperous place that is today.

But it is equally incumbent on us to remind ourselves that the multicultural Australia we enjoy today, with its amazing blend of people, traditions and beliefs, would not exist without the great contributions made by refugees who came from dire situations to find a place where they felt welcome and could become full members of society.

More than 700,000 refugees have settled in Australia since the end of World War II, enriching our society in a number of ways. For instance, prominent Australians such as South Australian Governor Hieu Van Le, billionaire businessmen Frank Lowy and Harry Triguboff, and scientist Karl Kruszelnicki, to name a few, initially arrived on our shores as refugees.

Indeed, research shows that people of refugee backgrounds have brought new skills and experience to Australia and that, with the right support, their entrepreneurial potential can translate to economic growth.

Last year, SSI published an enlightening evaluation report prepared by Professor Jock Collins from UTS Business School about SSI’s Ignite Small Business Start-ups initiative. Among other data, it included research that highlighted how people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds have a higher degree of entrepreneurialism when compared to the average population. In fact, the 2006 Census showed that 18.8 per cent of humanitarian arrivals operated a business, compared to 15.9 per cent of the general population (source).

At SSI, we know very well that refugees are typically strong and resilient people who are determined to make the most of their opportunities. We know this because we work with them every day and we are lucky to hear stories first-hand of men and women who work hard to make their new country a better place.

SSI client Reza Heidarzadegan and his family are a remarkable example of this. Having arrived in Australia with his wife and two adult children in June 2015, after spending several years in Malaysia awaiting resettlement, the whole family secured employment in just four months. Mr Heidarzadegan, an English teacher in Iran, obtained casual teaching work at Macquarie University, while his son and daughter started working as sales consultant and a retail assistant respectively. His wife is currently in the process of starting up her own business.

But they are not alone. In February, we published a story on the SSI blog about Arash Bordbar, a 22-year-old University of Western Sydney student who arrived in Australia as a refugee a year ago and whose passion for helping others will take him to Geneva in a few weeks to speak at the Annual UN Consultations with NGOs. After his experience, Arash is aware of the importance of education for young refugees and wants to become an advocate to help other young people have a shot at a better future.

These are just two examples of many, which I’m sure do not go unnoticed by the Australian community. I say this because despite sometimes being the target of media and public criticism, generally, Australians have positive perceptions of refugees.

In fact, I was impressed after reading the Refugees Welcome Index recently released by Amnesty International, which showed that Australia ranks in the top five countries where people are willing to let refugees live in their countries, towns, neighbourhoods and homes.

According to this survey, 85% of Australian respondents said they would personally accept people fleeing war or persecution into their country, and 13% would take refugees into their homes if needed.

Reading this report made me feel especially proud of my Greek heritage, as Greece came in third position in terms of the proportion of people who ‘strongly agree’ with the right of anyone to seek refuge in other countries.

This highlights once again the open and welcoming attitude towards refugees that has marked Australian history and that we need to reinforce to rise up to the occasion in the current global refugee crisis.

Violet Roumeliotis


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