Young people from refugee backgrounds can find it challenging to adjust to a new home, language and culture. Meet Omar, who connected with Youth Off The Streets when he was at a low point in his life.
When Omar* was eight years old, he moved to Australia to escape the civil war in Iraq. He and his family are one of many thousands who fled here after the conflict began in 2013.
His father had received a refugee visa years earlier, so the first time Omar remembers meeting him is when he landed in Australia.
“I had only seen one photo of him,” Omar recalls. “It was hard for me to accept the fact that he was my dad. I had to get used to that.”
On his first night in his new home, Omar slept on the floor. There was no bed – just a pillow and a blanket. His father was struggling to make ends meet.
“My mum wasn’t working and my dad was a taxi driver seven days a week, just trying to make enough money to provide for us,” he says. “All the money he had made went towards bringing me and my mum here.”
Omar started Year 3 at school, but found it hard to manage because he didn’t speak English and hadn’t been to school before.
“I never went to school because of the war,” he recalls. “It was too risky to send kids there. I didn’t know how to read or write. I hadn’t learned the fundamentals I was supposed to when I was young, so I struggled. It was hard for me to cope in Australia as a refugee.”
Other students bullied him because of his accent and how he looked.
“People treated me badly at first,” he says. “And as time went on, I still had the assumption that whenever someone tried to talk to me, they were trying to pick a fight with me.
“I got into trouble a lot during my primary school days. Much of it was a misunderstanding. A lot of it was coming from me. But it was complicated for me because I was traumatised.”
For years, Omar didn’t feel like he belonged at home or school. It was a far cry from the life he had experienced in Iraq with his friends, family and community.
“It’s difficult to explain, but I’d say you feel lonely,” he says. “You feel attacked – you don’t feel safe. I felt like an outsider.
“And I was depressed,” he adds. “Year 7 was one of the hardest years of my life. I still didn’t fit in and was called an ‘import’. I was constantly thinking of ways to protect myself.”
Fatina Elabd, Youth Off The Streets Team Leader – Engagement and Support, explains that some of the most significant challenges for refugee young people come from leaving behind not just their home, but their cultural identity – and coming to a new country where their culture isn’t always embraced.
“Many young refugees speak only a little English or none at all,” she says. “They’re trying to fit into society. They get confused about their identity and experience a sense of loss.”
A holistic approach
When Omar was 14 years old, he started getting into trouble with the police. Around this time, his friend introduced him to Youth Off The Streets.
“He told me he was going to a program where they give you food and provide activities,” Omar recalls. “I started going every Wednesday night.”
When Omar experienced trouble with the law, he called on Youth Off The Streets for help.
“They met me at the police station,” he says. “I had to go to court, and they came with me. They comforted me and supported me emotionally.”
Fatina explains that while many services focus on one specific set of challenges a young person is facing, Youth Off The Streets takes a holistic approach to their needs.
“We have an individual model, which is one-on-one support with the young person to help them achieve any goals that they set out to reach,” she says.
“We do whatever we can to advocate for them. In the case of refugee young people, this could be through applications, referencing documents, or working with settlement services for advice and referrals.
“For Omar, we were able to help him in court as a refugee,” she continues. “We helped him with the fines he had. Then we were able to sit with him, learn about his life and talk to him about his choices.”
Omar says that Fatina helped him learn how to deal with the anger and frustration he had accumulated from his life experiences, and he could finally move forward.
“Fatina helped me understand how to deal with my anger and remain calm,” he says. “At Youth Off The Streets, I met new people and found a sense of belonging.”
Engagement and support programs like the one Omar joined help youth workers connect with young people through a soft-entry approach.
“We build a rapport with the young person,” Fatina says. “Slowly they start to open up, and you see who they are and what they’re dealing with.
“It takes time,” she adds. “Sometimes it starts with them sharing that they’re having trouble in school, and then it leads to them telling us that they’re having trouble at home, or they don’t have a home, and not even realising that that’s homelessness.
“Our programs are beneficial because young people often don’t ask for support unless we reach out to them first.”
Omar eventually helped establish a co-design program for young people to give back to the community, in which he’s still involved.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of the issues that face our community,” he explains.
“We all come from different backgrounds. And we’re trying to benefit the community from what we’ve learned. Whether its homelessness, financial problems or family issues, we try to help others through our own experiences.”
Fatina says it’s important to give young people the platform to learn from one another and share their perspectives.
“We give them opportunities to create these programs and events for other young people,” she explains. “They deserve a voice, and sharing their stories is empowering for them.”
A bright future
Omar left high school and discovered that he enjoys hands-on work. Now, he has a full-time job in construction.
“I love building houses; I found myself in that,” he says. “I’m completing my builder’s licence. And I’m safe and coping well.
“I can also finally say I’m Australian,” he continues. “It took me a while to get to that state of mind. But the past six years have been good for me. I’m talking to everyone and get along with everyone. I’m working on my future.”
“Omar has come so far,” Fatina says. “We were able to help him with our wraparound services. Now he has a positive outlook and goals he wants to achieve.
“That’s why these programs are so important. Omar was extremely vulnerable when we met him. Without these services, we never would have been able to support him in finding his direction in life.”
Omar believes refugees like himself have much to contribute and make Australia a better, more diverse place.
“Whether it’s their ideas, perspectives, the way they work, or the food they make, refugees add a lot to Australia,” he says. “It helps build the country.
“Australia is distinctive because it is multicultural. That’s what makes us feel proud, and I think it’s the best asset we have.”
Refugee Week runs from Sunday 20 June until Saturday 26 June 2021.
*Name and images changed to protect the privacy of the young person.