Harmony Day is a celebration of cultural diversity that focuses on inclusiveness, respect and belonging. At SSI, we marked the day with an afternoon of food, music and dancing that also integrated Nowruz – the New Year’s celebration for more than a dozen cultures globally.
These celebrations, however, took place against a tumultuous global backdrop, where just hours before news had broken of the devastating terrorist attacks in Brussels.
While the media primarily focused on the Belgian capital, we know similar attacks also occurred in Turkey and Mali in the days before. Our thoughts are with the families of all those who were killed or injured.
The response to past terrorist attacks shows us these events can divide communities and lead to racist activity. Refugees and people seeking asylum are particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of such attacks.
Rather than contemplating our differences, however, we should mark these events by renewing our focus on inclusion, respect and racial tolerance. We should strive for social harmony and greater cohesion among all community members, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
A wonderful example of this was the ‘I’ll ride with you’ hashtag (#IllRideWithYou) that gained popularity following the 2014 Martin Place siege. Everyday Australians used the hashtag as a vehicle to show their support for Muslims in their local communities by offering to accompany their fellow commuters to help counter any anti-Muslim sentiment.
Many people are also pitching in to extend their support to some of the newest arrivals to the Australian community: Syrian and Iraqi refugees. We only have to look to Sydney’s northern beaches where dozens of congregations are working together to coordinate a warm welcome for Syrian refugees as they settle in their new communities.
At SSI, we’re involved in a number of initiatives that promote social cohesion and harmony for refugees and people seeking asylum, such as Leichhardt Council’s proposed Refugee Welcome Centre. SSI is one of a number of organisations that co-signed a letter urging the Baird Government to get behind the council’s plans for a temporary accommodation centre for newly arrived refugees.
SSI is also working closely with restaurateurs and sisters, Carol and Sharon Salloum, who are using their connections in the hospitality industry to help newly arrived refugees find employment and integrate into their new communities.
The sense of belonging and inclusion that refugees receive from employment is just as important as the economic independence it offers. Finding work helps refugees to improve their language skills and develop new social connections, which ultimately helps them to settle successfully into their new communities.
Finding alternative employment pathways for refugees, migrants and people seeking asylum was one of the main drivers behind SSI’s recent partnership with insurer Allianz Australia, which will result in permanent roles for 20 people over the next two years. Allianz will also deliver educational scholarships to help refugees and people seeking asylum, in a similar manner to the educational scholarships that we offer through the SSI Foundation.
Both opportunities support refugees to ensure their meaningful social and economic participation by eliminating education as a barrier to settlement in Australia. Access to education ultimately increases social participation, independence, and economic and personal wellbeing for people from refugee backgrounds, leading to social cohesion in their new communities.
In a similar vein, SSI’s Ignite Small Business Start-ups initiative supports fledgling entrepreneurs from refugee backgrounds while they establish a small business or expand an existing one. Many refugees have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and, when supported to overcome settlement challenges, they will go on to contribute greatly to the Australian economy.
Employment is also at the core of two of SSI’s newest programs. The first, ParentsNext, is an initiative to help parents prepare to enter the workforce when their youngest child reaches school age. SSI, in partnership with Metro Assist, will work with parents in the Bankstown area to identify goals and to develop skills so they are prepared to re-enter the workforce when their children start school.
The second is our Work for the Dole program, which equips jobseekers with skills in areas including logistics, marketing, hospitality, business administration, and arts and craft. The program aims to give jobseekers real skills, experience and interaction with employers that will help them in their search for work.
Reza Heidarzadegan, an Iranian refugee who SSI is working with, put it best when he recently explained to SSI staff why finding employment was at the top of his wishlist on arrival in Australia last year.
“Working here, as a newcomer, gives a person lots of opportunities,” he said. “You’re getting to know the people who live here, with whom you’re going to live and with whom you’re going to share. You’re learning the culture, you’re improving your language proficiency and then, above all, you are contributing to your new community besides making your own life.”
Organisations like SSI have a big role to play in promoting meaningful social and economic participation through employment and humanitarian services.
In the aftermath of senseless violence like we saw in Brussels, it’s important that we remember why we’re in engaged initiatives that promote social harmony, and refocus our efforts on inclusion and respect for all.