World Refugee Day was initiated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2001.
Each year on 20 June, countries around the world raise awareness of issues facing refugees and the positive contributions they’ve made to the places they now call ‘home’.
There are events of dancing and music to celebrate diversity and the impact of over 800,000 Australians who arrived as refugees over the past 70 years. And then there are stories of persecution and discrimination. The stories are sad. Heart wrenching. They inspire compassion. But they also just plain inspire – because this is what’s possible when refuge is given to people who just want a chance at happiness.
What’s often missing are the stories of generosity and leadership from refugees themselves. Here’s one.
I’ve received. So I give.
In 2016, the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, released findings on the significant philanthropic activity of culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Along with providing translation services or volunteering at the local shelter, refugee communities inherently donate disproportionate amounts of time and resources to humanitarian causes and community building efforts.
Speaking to the Director of the Oromia Support Group, Marama, earlier this week, it was clear that when it comes to those who’ve left Ethiopia to seek refugee status elsewhere, community participation forms a core part of daily life. There are 46 million people of Oromo ethnicity in Ethiopia, making up the majority.
Marama explains. “Since colonialisation, many have been persecuted against, discriminated against and continue to face ongoing risk of human rights violations.” Marama estimates that as a result approximately 10,000 people of Oromo ethnicity currently live in Victoria – the vast-majority of whom entered on refugee or family reunification visas.
Asked about his own volunteering efforts, Marama lists off his work with Australia Aid, White Ribbon, RCAN-Vic (Refugee Community Advocacy Network – Victoria branch) and several other human rights community groups that he supports. That’s on top of his work as a support worker, and even then, I get the feeling there’s more bubbling under the surface.
He’s not alone. There are half a dozen community groups that Oromo refugees have established across Victoria since the late 90s, with members in the thousands in Victoria. Along with regular cultural celebrations, activities include all types of services for those experiencing hardship.
“When it comes to resettlement, they rely on us for certain information, translations, job references, personal references and we support them where we can to get the training and employment they need,” Marama explains.
“The Oromia Support Group is just one of the community groups we’ve setup. There are nine of us in management and we have around 100 active members with representatives in Queensland, South Australia, Sydney and Perth.
“We focus on high level advocacy, lobbying for peace and stability at an international stage, and we also advocate on human rights issues for refugees in Australia.
“We collaborate with many other community groups for this, including the Ogaden, Gambela, Benishangul, Sidama and other Ethiopian community groups. And we source information of human rights violations in Ethiopia and from people now in neighbouring countries.”
“We also have mentors from Diaspora Action Australia who’ve helped us meet with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra, and at the moment we are set to lobby the UNHCR with the Refugee Council for Australia,” he said.
This level of commitment is no walk in the park. This is hours and days of work over the past fifteen years invested in meetings, forums, phone calls on the run, and most Marama’s annual leave this month spent finishing their latest UNHCR report.
What’s driving him? How – after the hardship of leaving your home country in distress and the challenges of establishing yourself in a new place – how do you find the energy to do this?
“That’s a very interesting question you ask. It’s personal experience told through my life. When I was young (and fled Ethiopia), no one is looking for you. No one is advocating for you. Fortunately, UNHCR was coming with some rations, but as a community we had to support ourselves. Since then I haven’t been able to find my family or know that they’re safe.
“Being a part of Oromia Support Group is about embracing the opportunities that we do have. And personally, I have a philosophy to live with hope. It’s by pushing forward that everything can change.”
“The Oromo community have all come through the same experience, and when we join in our advocacy, it’s positive like-minded people coming together encouraging one another. It’s just a group of people saying ‘Let’s do something!’”
I ask whether his family and friends ever think he’s crazy for the amount of time and energy he devotes to advocacy.
“I’m lucky, my wife is really very active in the community. She is working double what I am in a community radio station and neighbourhood support program. She actually asks me, ‘why are you having a rest?’ and encourages me.
“She knows how challenging it can be, and some people find it easy to forget what they’ve got, but it’s got to be about solving the problem.”
It’s hard to miss the smile in Marama’s voice and the optimism in his words.