New arrivals identify with Australia’s original peoples: report

Posted on 26 Sep 2023

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Refugee First Nations report

Refugees new to Australia are keen to learn more about First Nations peoples’ history and culture and the issues that matter to them, according to new research.

The study by migrant advocacy not-for-profit Settlement Services International and Western Sydney University revealed that shared experience had forged a common bond between the two groups, making them natural allies in the push for reconciliation and the proposed Voice to Parliament.

However, the authors of the study, Foundations for Belonging 2023: Exploring refugees’ understanding and engagement with First Nations issues and histories, said more needs to be done to provide refugees with access to opportunities for cultural and information exchange with Australia’s original inhabitants.

The new research comes amid an increasingly rancorous debate in the lead up to the Voice referendum on October 14.

Now in its fourth year, the Foundations for Belonging study asked refugees about their sense of welcome and belonging as they navigated a new chapter of their lives in Australia.

The latest iteration of the study is intended to address a research gap in how refugees engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and peoples and identify ways to enhance their understanding in the future.

SSI’s head of research and policy, Dr Tadgh McMahon, said the findings indicated that the endurance of First Nations peoples and their cultures gave refugees a greater sense of their own cultural safety in the face of the dominant Western culture in their new home.

“Harnessing the shared bond between refugee and First Nations communities requires action from government, settlement providers, peak bodies and reconciliation groups to enhance avenues for education, collaboration and reconciliation,” Dr McMahon said.

SSI refugee report

“This includes developing more systematic engagement activities across settlement programs for refugees to strengthen their understanding of First Nations peoples, particularly at the local level.”

Key findings of the report included:

  • Even though refugees have had limited exposure to First Nations history, culture and issues, they are interested in learning more and meeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • First Nations–led experiential learning on Country can help build engagement and mutual respect for the land among refugees.
  • Communication exchanges founded on the sharing of diverse cultural knowledge and practices can build culturally respectful, reciprocal relationships between refugees and First Nations peoples.
  • Refugees’ engagement with First Nations histories and connections to Country helps uncover similarities between First Nations cultures and their own, creating a sense of unity and sense of belonging for refugees.
  • Similarities and differences between First Nations’ and refugees’ histories – including experiences of suffering – allow refugees to share aspects of their cultural insecurity and vulnerability.
  • Refugees’ knowledge of the continuity and endurance of Australia’s First Nations peoples and cultures can imbue refugees with a sense of cultural safety and continuity of their own cultural traditions in the face of dominant Western “settler” narratives in Australia.
On Country education
Refugees new to Australia value on Country education to learn more about First Nations Peoples history and culture.
“I was told what happened to Aboriginal people in the past and what happened to us too when ISIS attacked in 2014. That made me want to know about their history.”
Ezidi refugee Elias Elias.

Western Sydney University researcher and Gadigal traditional owner Madison Shakespeare conducted in-person workshops on Country as well as online focus group discussions with refugees as part of the study.

She said newly arrived Australians wanted to learn about First Nations issues, cultural practices and history in a hands-on way on Aboriginal land, not just via information included in citizenship tests or settlement orientation sessions.

“Incorporating land-based education into the ways that refugees learn about and engage with First Nations histories and issues can help to develop respect and appreciation for the lands and Country that we live on and share,” Ms Shakespeare said.

Research participant Elias Elias, an Ezidi refugee from the area incorporating parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, settled in Australia in 2018.

He said that when he heard there was an ancient culture in Australia, he immediately wanted to know more.

“I was told what happened to Aboriginal people in the past and what happened to us too when ISIS attacked in 2014. That made me want to know about their history,” Mr Elias said.

The report makes several recommendations, including strengthening knowledge of First Nations peoples’ history and culture in government refugee programs and creating community based cultural exchange opportunities between First Nations peoples and newly arrived Australians.

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