New Roots Project helps refugees settle in Australia

By Violet Roumeliotis | 30 May 16

Adnan* is a university-educated electrical engineer who was forced to flee Syria when the civil war reached his home in Aleppo. He witnessed buildings bombed and people shot. He escaped with his mother and sister to Jordan, where he applied for refugee protection with the United Nations Humanitarian Commissioner for Refugees.

Adnan, who is now in his mid-40s, lived in a refugee camp while he waited, and hoped, for a safe haven country to accept his application. Many millions of people live for many years in these makeshift refugee camps around the world. The average time spent in a refugee camp is said to be about 17 years. Adnan and his family members were relatively lucky. His mother and sister were accepted to live in the United States after about 18 months. About six months later Adnan was referred by the UNHCR to be resettled in Australia on a refugee visa.

Although he is sincerely thankful for the lifeline that was his visa to Australia, Adnan cannot help but have mixed emotions about his circumstances. He lives alone in Australia, separated from family and unable to visit them because he cannot afford the cost of flights. The UNHCR tries to settle immediate family members together where possible, but in Adnan’s case he and his family members were all of adult age and received independent offers. Making new friends in a foreign country is also tough, and Adnan longs for companionship. He misses his homeland, which he says is “the most beautiful”, but realises that his beloved Syria will never be the same.

In Australia, Adnan’s qualifications are not recognised and he cannot continue his career as an engineer. So after more than 20 years in that profession, Adnan has begun retraining for work in community services. He is looking for work and ways to meet people in Australia and rebuild his life, but he is lonely and often distressed by his situation.

Adnan’s story is typical of many men who have had to flee their homes and become refugees. Their lives have been turned upside down. They have witnessed violence and persecution that has had lasting effects. Their mental health and wellbeing has been put under extreme stress.

Making the settlement experience in Australia easier, while giving men like Adnan the tools to rebuild and seek support for their mental health and wellbeing, is the aim of the New Roots Project. There are three integrated elements to this project launched in December 2015 – a smartphone app, community training and an Online Toolkit for caseworkers in resettlement services – all of which are designed to help refugees rebuild their health and wellbeing.

The project has been developed by Settlement Services International (SSI) – a community-sector, not-for-profit organisation based in NSW – in partnership with beyondblue and funded with donations from the Movember Foundation. SSI, the organisation I am chief executive of, is funded by the Australian Government to provide humanitarian settlement services to refugees and case management support to people seeking asylum in NSW.

Through this work we saw the need to respond to the high levels of psychological distress that refugees experience, in order to improve settlement outcomes and support them to reach their potential in Australia.

We also noticed that smartphones were valued assets and a link to family, friends and services, for refugees and people seeking asylum.

The New Roots Project was designed around the needs of refugee men because research, and SSI’s experience, indicates that men seek help and think about health and wellbeing differently to women. The app, which is available in Arabic, Farsi and Tamil, has been developed to value men’s preferences to rebuild their mental health and wellbeing in a holistic way. But this design does not preclude the app from being useful to women, or for migrants, who we hope will also find it beneficial.

This strategy behind the app is to provide health and wellbeing support holistically, through orientation to Australia. The app contains information about Australian society and culture; about applying for work or study; finding and joining sports clubs and community organisations; finding housing and managing money; and finding free or affordable activities in any given community.

The app also has video stories from former refugees who have been through the settlement experience, as well as a mood-monitoring tool, stress and anxiety relief exercises and contact information for support services. Because the app comes in native languages and is available in a person’s pocket, it greatly increases access to these essential resources. This, we hope, will have a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing.

The Online Toolkit for caseworkers and the community workshops provide information and resources to build the capacity of people who work with, and who are close to, men settling in Australia. This continues to promote the health and wellbeing of male refugees.

Research shows that people from refugee backgrounds, like Adnan, who are resettled in Western countries experience high levels of psychological distress, primarily attributed to traumatic experiences in countries of origin and transit. The stressors of settling in a new country and securing the necessities of life – housing, employment, health and education – and adapting to a new culture can also impact adversely on social and emotional wellbeing.

Good mental health is integral to human health and wellbeing. Successful settlement of migrants and refugees is often defined as the ability to participate fully in economic, social, cultural and civic life. Migrants and refugees themselves describe settlement and integration through a “life outcomes” lens valuing happiness, confidence, choices and being respected by others. The capacity to achieve those markers can be greatly affected by trauma, stress and anxiety.

It’s at this coalescence of the settlement experience, participation in Australian society and culture, personal life outcomes, and mental health and wellbeing, that we hope the New Roots Project can improve the lives of refugees.

As an organisation, SSI’s mission in the humanitarian settlement sector is to support refugees to achieve independence, reach their potential and feel they are valued members of the Australian community. Through the New Roots Project, we hope we have created new pathways for the people we support to follow and reach those goals.

*Adnan’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.