Understanding roots: consideration of culture in refugee populations by Rida Hanna

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Reledev’s DREAM Project is all about reaching out to young students of refugee backgrounds who have settled in Australia. Reledev caught up with one of our current DREAM Girls Club volunteers Rida Hanna, a 21 year old, Medicine student from Western Sydney who shared what motivated her to work closely with refugee students.

Rida recently helped DREAM Project volunteers to understand, like a tree, the roots to helping students of refugee background grow. We hear from Rida as she shares more about this valuable leadership training session for DREAM.

Since a young age, my culture and my surroundings seemed binary. Every day, I’d leave behind my Arabic culture and pick up my school bag. At school, I’d only speak English. I’d largely only talk about Western culture. And as a token Arab to many, my ethnicity would only be brought up for jokes. For instance, my friends would ask me to count to ten in Arabic for a laugh as they found the language so aggressive. Dropping that school bag off as soon as I got home and heading to my Tayta’s (grandma’s in English) house every Friday, I’d be welcomed back to a constant stream of Arabic news or music, my favourite Arabic foods, and the warmth of my extended family.

This is the reality for many first-generation Australians. We often live our lives in duality, split between two ideas of home – one in Australia and another overseas. Recently, however, I’ve had the privilege of participating in solidarity protests for Lebanon, my country of ethnicity, within Australia, my country of birth. Through this experience, and my role within Reledev’s DREAM Girls’ Club, I’ve felt now more than ever that we do not need to live in this duality. Cultures are distinct but share many core values that unify them – something that Australia not only welcomes, but fosters.

(Image taken at A Stand in Solidarity: From Bankstown to Lebanon)

Reledev’s DREAM Project operates within the Fairfield City Council, a highly diverse area that has seen growth in subpopulations born in Iraq and Syria. These subpopulations are largely made up of refugees, forcibly displaced due to perpetuation of international conflicts.

The Syrian Civil war emerged in March 2011 due to growing resentment from rebel groups with Ba’athist Syrian Arab Republic. The Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported that by December 2018, there had been over 367,000 deaths as a result of the conflict and a further 193,035 people presumed dead or missing.

Between 2003 and 2011, the “Iraq War” transpired wherein a United States-led coalition invaded Iraq and overthrew the government leading to internal civil wars wherein rebel groups opposed occupying forces and the new government, protracting the war into the Iraqi Civil War that began in January 2014.

Within a talk I recently gave at a DREAM Leadership workshop, I utilised the extended metaphor of a tree to discuss how mentors can seek to understand their students more profoundly. As we transition from Spring to Summer, our trees have come to fruition once again. When we see a tree, we most often seek out what blooms – flowers, fruits, leaves. But to grow them, we don’t water them or feed them soil. Instead, to truly welcome these forcibly displaced populations, we must understand what nourishes their roots to help them grow. Roots represent core cultural values. The branches that emerge are dependent on the roots but affected by external influences, such as communal Australian culture. Finally, flowers emerge from branches, representing our students that have bloomed from their cultural groups and Australian culture, but are individualistic with their own quirks and personalities.

(Diagram of Tree metaphor)

Within the talk, I encouraged discussion about Middle-Eastern values in which respect, authority, and family are integral, contrasting more individually-centred Western values.

(Ramy, 2019)

A difficulty for DREAM mentors is that many of our students are told that they can be one of four things – a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or failure. The theory guiding the idea of these pursuits is that these are well-established careers with high pay and good employability. It also feeds into the cultural values of honour and wisdom, wherein these careers are considered to require high intellect and are regarded well by the public. Often parents might purport these pursuits, but students have their own set of individual pursuits as well. For example, a DREAM mentor has reported that many of his students hope to create local businesses. The older brother of one of my students is currently a hairdresser. Again, though there are core cultural values, personal context has also shaped individualistic values. So how do we navigate that?

We must be receptive, and not oppose or negate the opinions of family. Throughout the lives of many DREAM students, schooling or a stable and present government were not present and so, they’ve had to deeply rely on and trust their own family unit to keep safe. The Arab world’s protracted conflicts necessitate forming groups for comfort and safety. However, within the privilege of a conflict-free Western world we are freer to explore ourselves and detach from groups.

Though this duality of Arabic and Australian culture exists, DREAM’s discussion illuminated the way cultures do not have to be silenced or minimised for minorities to be accepted within Australia. School bags do not have to be exchanged for cultural values. Instead, these values are often cross-cultural and encourage openness, love, and understanding. If anything, they act as launching points for Australians from any background to relate and reach a deeper understanding of each other.

The world is in protest. From Hong Kong, to Haiti. From Indonesia to Chile. And most relevant to me, from Lebanon to Sydney. Amidst it all, a message has been broadcast by each individual group globally: we are united. Within Australia, DREAM seeks to echo this message.

Would you like to volunteer for the DREAM Project? We are accepting applications now. Please fill out an online form to register your interest. https://reledev.org.au/volunteers/

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