The Refugee Experience

Reflections from volunteer Kate Middleton

We were welcomed with generous offers of tea and coffee, and smiles all round. “Sit, sit, make yourselves comfortable.”

Then we were warned.

“You may find today distressing. Feel free to step outside or take a break whenever you need.”

Okay… it’s a distressing topic. People go through hell.

“Are you ready?”

We were asked to close our eyes and think about how we got to the session that morning, how we had left our families, what we had last spoken about, where our partners, families, friends were today. Then we were told that there had been an announcement. We all had to remain in the building. There was a situation outside, and it was not safe to leave. We were not told much. We were told the phones had been cut. There was no way to call family and friends. Roads were closed. Trains weren’t running.

A foreign force had invaded Melbourne. No news was available about what was happening. Our forces were outnumbered.

How far from home are you? Where are your family? Do you have a plan about what you would do in this situation? Where is your passport?

I am 40 kilometres from home, not far by car, but the roads are closed. How long might it take to walk? Is it safe? My husband is at work, 20 kilometres from where I am now. Would he stay there? We never thought this would happen, of course we don’t have a plan. And no, I don’t have my passport.

We are asked to make snap decisions about getting on planes, on boats, about leaving the country and seeking asylum. This is hard. But, it drives home the message.

This is a powerful exercise, and one I wish every Australian, and every politician would do. It puts you firmly in the shoes, for a very brief and easily escapable moment, of someone forced to flee their home.

The rest of the day is spent discussing statistics, government policy and the harrowing stories of families and individuals who had to live the experience we were asked to imagine for the smallest of instances. Importantly, for me, the course also offered advice and a framework for working with refugee and asylum seekers, and helping with steps towards recovery from terrible trauma.

The framework starts out by describing the aims of those who commit acts of torture, and the psychological impacts this trauma has on victims. At this stage the group are feeling despairing and impotent. This framework then offers up some goals of recovery, which help counter the effects of trauma and torture. For example, where trauma causes fear, loss of human dignity and helplessness, recovery seeks to restore a sense of safety, respect and control. Through this framework we were able, as a group, to discuss ways that we, as individuals, or community groups, could help people work towards these goals of recovery, even in a small way.

I found this very empowering, as I feel inadequate in the face of such a huge problem to do anything to help. For example, at Water Well Project we can help people gain a small sense of control in their lives by providing information about how our health system works. We can show respect and restore some dignity by giving people the chance to ask questions important to them, and share stories and company.

I would really recommend this course and feel very privileged that I had the opportunity to attend. It was fantastic to meet people from all walks of life, working with refugee and asylum seeker communities in all manner of ways. I learnt so much from the facilitators from Foundation House, as well as from the group discussion. And, the most powerful thing was the realisation that even though the horrors of the refugee experience seem insurmountable, and our efforts won’t solve the problem, small gestures of kindness and respect can help people immensely. I felt like a little person who couldn't do much at the start of the day, and now I feel like a little person who can make a small, but important difference.


Kate Middleton was rewarded for her volunteer efforts with us with a complimentary spot in this workshop run by Foundation House. Please visit their website for more information about 'The Refugee Experience' workshop.