SSI’s first Speakers’ Series for 2016 was a powerful and inspiring evening, shared by 85 guests packed into SSI’s Ashfield auditorium and watched online at SSI’s YouTube channel.
Journalist Sarah Malik facilitated the evening and opened the March 29 event by describing the journey of a refugee and asylum seeker as being like that of Jason and the Argonauts — though their quest was Australia, instead of the Golden Fleece.
Four amazing individuals were on the panel for the Inspiring stories of former refugees who made Australia home discussion and, throughout the evening, it became apparent that their common experiences were the power of education, employment and English language.
Hana Sadiq, from Iraq, said from her very first day in Australia she studied English. Ms Sadiq now helps newly arrived students and their families to settle in Australia.
“Language is the key to settling here,” she said.
“Australian English is the hardest English in the world to learn,” said Deng Thiak Adut, who came to Australia from South Sudan. Mr Adut, now a lawyer with his own practice, came to Australia with no knowledge of English.
Having escaped life as a child soldier, he said there were different wars to fight in Australia, and learning English (as well as the cold weather) was one of them.
Watch Speakers’ Series: Inspiring stories of former refugees in full below
Describing himself as the veteran on the panel, having arrived from Vietnam in 1978, Huy Truong said that, although the atmosphere towards refugees was then more positive than it is today, he and his siblings still struggled to fit in and there were even physical fights.
“Without language, every day was a frustration,” Mr Truong said.
The SSI Speakers Series provides opportunities for panel discussions that enhance knowledge and awareness about refugee and asylum seeker issues, and one of the issues discussed was the challenges that they each had to overcome.
Aminata Conteh-Biger was one of the first refugees from Sierra Leone to be accepted into Australia in 2000. Although very sociable by nature, her trauma caused her to become introverted, she said, and she struggled and felt isolated for a long time.
Now, every day provided a choice and “no” was not an option for her. “If someone says I can’t do something, I try even harder,” Ms Conteh-Biger said.
Mr Adut said he would never be able to explain how hard it was when he first arrived, but there were so many opportunities and he grabbed them all.
“Work hard and you’ll get there,” he said. “Australia truly is rich in everything, so take advantage of all the opportunities there are.”
Between them, Mr Truong’s parents worked 24 hours a day as factory shift workers. That strong work ethic spurred him on to succeed, contribute back to the country that accepted his family, and not waste the opportunity given to him to grow up in a safe place.
“Having come from a refugee background, that gave us a strong sense of self-reliance and a different perspective on life — you can’t really complain about ‘having a bad day’,” Mr Truong said.
Unfortunately, Mr Truong had to leave before the evening was over, but the one message the other three guests wanted to leave was what it meant to be a refugee.
Ms Conteh-Biger: “Be compassionate — there is not a deep enough understanding in Australia of why people are seeking refuge here. People don't risk their children and their lives by putting them on a boat for no reason.”
Mr Adut: “Do not judge refugees. In fact they should be welcomed as heroes.”
Ms Sadiq: “It is difficult and they face hard times but, with support, employment and English, they will overcome them and thrive.”