learning to heal in a COVID normal world

Posted on 23rd June 2022

This year’s Refugee Week (19 to 25 June) theme is ‘healing’, with the Refugee Council of Australia recognising that ‘COVID has afforded us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hit the reset button on how we behave towards one another’. Vanbawi Thawng, Bi-cultural Worker with the Bicultural Work Program, and Mel Block, Program Facilitator with the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Health Team, discuss what the theme means for their programs and how relations with these communities can move forward.

Part of the Refugee Health Team, cohealth’s Bicultural Work Program consists of community members from refugee-like backgrounds who have graduated from the bicultural internship program. They use their network connections and understanding of different cultural perspectives to identify and advocate for community needs, lead engagement and co-design, review materials for cultural accessibility, and deliver community-led projects.

Vanbawi, an accomplished worker from the Falam Chin community, emphasises the importance of the relevant sectors listening to those of lived experience, especially from the CALD [culturally and linguistically diverse] community. “They’ve recognised the need for people with experience, who know the inside story of these communities and how they relate to each other. It’s important that we keep working on that, building that relationship, and providing that space.”

“We must ask: what does it mean to truly welcome people into our country?”

“We have to reflect deeply around what healing means,” says Mel, who touches on the precarious role of government and politics. “There are structures within our society that have hindered the agency and wellbeing of people from refugee backgrounds and those seeking asylum. A lot was learned through COVID at a state level, but less at a federal level. How can we heal with a lack of government support? And with things like institutional racism, we must ask: what does it mean to truly welcome people into our country?”

Working with a survivor of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime in Iraq many years ago, Mel was introduced to both ‘the depths humanity can descend to, and the amazing resilience shown when working through painful trauma’.

“I was amazed by his ability to just put one foot in front of the other, and to keep going. You try to place yourself in that situation, and you can’t even imagine what it would be like. We can step alongside someone in their healing journey, wherever it takes them, and honouring that they’re here with us at all, because that’s pretty extraordinary.”

Seeing a gap in communication and support between communities during COVID, Vanbawi supported them by disseminating public health advice via community information channels and creating resources in language to improve accessibility. He collaborated with community leaders and health practitioners to set up pop-up vaccination clinics, ensuring a culturally safe environment with warm referrals to improve vaccine uptake.

“I saw the depths humanity can descend to, and the amazing resilience shown when working through painful trauma.”

After witnessing the new levels of engagement, he collaborated with a bicultural worker from the Iraqi community to deliver a cross-cultural youth basketball program and has begun a badminton project with his community in Melbourne’s west. With mental illness prevalent among refugee communities, these activities aim to help improve their quality of life and promote healing.

“The feedback has been so amazing. The parents were really happy with what we did. It’s important to articulate to them the importance of supporting their kids, and the kids being able to access different sports and social avenues.”

As for what’s planned for Refugee Week, Vanbawi and his team built on the value of connection and diversity by working with the Western Melbourne Falam Chin Fellowship Group. On 18 June, they headed to Sovereign Hill, Ballarat’s historic museum park, for a fun picnic day. “In the past, we’ve relied on donations from leaders and then headed to a park or a beach with some snacks. This year, cohealth was able to support us, which is amazing. We’ll have fun, singing, and dancing.

“A faith leader also talked about the importance of community coming together and being connected, even if we speak in different dialects, go to different churches or have different beliefs. It’s incredibly important to strengthen those connections.”

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