16/04/2020 2:42 PM AEST | Updated 06/08/2020 4:02 PM AEST

How Coronavirus Is Creating Unique Challenges For Australia’s Migrant Communities

Culturally diverse groups are adapting to life during the pandemic in their own ways.

See the latest stories on the coronavirus outbreak.  

For Australia’s migrant communities and its international students, language barriers, the disruption of family structures and exclusion from economic aid are intensifying the already harsh challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.  

In Sydney, restaurant owner Vatsal Harshadkumar Shah saw that international students were struggling financially and weren’t getting economic support from the government, so he responded by starting a free meal service.

“We believe this is an especially hard time that overseas students are facing as they have lost their jobs,” Shah told HuffPost Australia. 

Supplied/Vatsal Harshadkumar Shah
Chowpati restaurant owner Vatsal Harshadkumar Shah, left, with two staff members. The restaurant offers free meals for struggling international students.

“Grocery prices are also getting high, and that is why this free meal will help them to reduce their burden, at least for food expenses.”

Shah’s Indian restaurant, Chowpati, in Toongabbie in Sydney’s west, is providing a free “tiffin” service, an Indian lunchbox-style meal, that includes a curry, dhal, three rotis and rice. 

Since launching the service in late March, up to 50 students have picked up meals on a daily basis, and Shah believes the number will only increase as the health crisis continues.

Earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told temporary visa holders and international students they should “return to their home countries” if they weren’t able to support themselves in Australia. 

“All students who come to Australia in their first year have to give a warranty that they are able to support themselves for the first 12 months of their study,” Morrison said. However, international students don’t qualify for the country’s recent JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs supporting people who have lost their jobs amid the pandemic.

“If they are not in a position to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries,” Morrison said. 

Loneliness For The Young And Old 

It’s also a lonely time for many international students because of the strict social distancing measures implemented by the government. Public gatherings are limited to two people, and gyms, libraries and indoor worship spaces are closed. 

Harbir Pal Singh Bhatia, president of the North Shore Sikh Association of Sydney, said the Guru Nanak Gurudwara Turramurra Sikh Temple was a regular gathering spot for many international students before rules were put in place to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

“Our temple used to have so many students from India come over the weekends,” said Bhatia.

The students would also use the temple’s laundry facilities, get a free meal and even take leftovers home.

Facebook/Guru Nanak Gurudwara Turramurra Sikh Temple
The Guru Nanak Gurudwara Turramurra Sikh Temple in Sydney is hosting live-streams of its daily prayer services.

“It would be a help to them because they have a hard life. They study, they work, and then they do their assignments in the evening and the washing and cleaning. The poor guys, they’re suffering because we can’t really serve them anything.” 

With the temple now closed, attendees are encouraged to join daily live-streamed prayer sessions, but the social isolation is also felt deeply by the community’s older members. 

Bhatia said temple attendance isn’t just about worship but also socialising and retrieving information from English-speaking community leaders who can translate the news to them. 

“What happens is those guys would actually see each other once every week, if not more than once a week. They will go there, have a bit of a chat as well after the prayers and have the lunch,” he said. 

“They are missing it the most because for them, basically that’s it. No coming out at all, no talking to anybody and if there are people [around them] who cannot speak their language, that’s no good to them.” 

Language Barriers 

Emmanuel Kondok is the founder of Southern Hope Community Organisation that provides support to South Sudanese and African communities in Western Sydney. 

Social distancing restrictions mean he’s closed his office and resorted to phone and online communication with clients, many of whom are still confused by the coronavirus crisis. 

“There’s a lot of phone calls, clients want to know what is going on and when the office is going to be open,” Kondok told HuffPost Australia.

“There are people who may be in need of filling out some forms for unemployment volunteer applications. Some know English, and for some it’s very hard. Even though they know English, due to the cultural sensitivity and understanding, they usually come to me, especially the older people.” 

Supplied/Emmanuel Kondok
Southern Hope Community Organisation founder Emmanuel Kondok has closed his office due to social distancing measures. He now hosts live-stream calls to support South Sudanese and African communities in Western Sydney.

Kondok has been hosting live-streams online with clients to explain what to do during this pandemic and how social distancing works. 

While various migrant communities stay connected by phone and online, there are also online translation services that convey COVID-19 health information.

These include Ethnolink, which provides coronavirus messaging in 49 languages. The Australian government’s TIS National offers an interpreting service in over 50 languages for “people with no or limited English language skills”. 

The NSW government’s website has handwashing guides, symptom information and social distancing posters in 10 languages, as well as hotel isolation information in 33 languages

However, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) believes more government multilingual services need to be provided. 

“It is incredibly important that we communicate important COVID-19 health messages to those in the community for who English isn’t their first language,” said the organisation’s CEO, Mohammad Al-Khafaji.

“Health messaging must be simple, consistent and regular. Unfortunately, we haven’t had that in English, and so you could imagine how much harder it is for multicultural communities.

“Many are relying on in-language health information through WhatsApp groups from family and friends overseas, which could be inconsistent with our health messaging and spread myths and panic.” 

Traditional Family Structures Make Social Distancing Difficult 

Bhatia said many South Asian and East Asian families live in “joint family’ structures where often three generations stay in the same house. 

These cultural traditions have made it harder to adhere to health authorities’ requests for younger people to stay away from the elderly, who are more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 symptoms. 

Bhatia’s 90-year-old father and his mother, in her early 80s, live in his Sydney home with him, his wife and son. 

“They have their own room and own toilet. When we are at dinner time, we’re sitting two to three metres away, talk and then go to bed. I don’t talk to them as much as I would normally do,” he said. 

Bhatia’s parents particularly struggle with not being able to hug their grandchildren, as “they haven’t seen anything like that in their lives” before.

“One [son] is working in Canberra, so he’s a doctor, and even if he comes to visit, he just comes to the door and stays a distance from my dad and mum.

“It is heartbreaking for my mum and dad, they don’t understand that he comes all the way and can’t even come close to us. 

“In our culture, people often hug their grandparents and kids, and that’s not happening anymore. You can’t do it.” 

Refugees Reliving The Trauma 

There are opportunities and challenges for refugee communities during this time. On one hand, there are many who are working as part of Australia’s emergency response, while others are feeling socially ostracised or potentially reliving the trauma of seeking asylum in a foreign country. 

“We have seen people from refugee and migrant backgrounds who are right now in the middle of the response to this crisis and working in critical roles right across the community,” said Amnesty International’s Shankar Kasynathan.

“So we’re seeing migrants and refugees playing an important role as frontline workers, but we’re also seeing, of course, significant issues for migrants and refugees as well in the community.” 

Dor Akech Achiek was six years old when he walked with his mother and siblings from South Sudan through Uganda and on to Kenya for almost three months. After living there until his teens, he was received by the United Nations Refugee Agency and resettled in Australia in 2003.

Achiek said his life experiences have made the coronavirus crisis less challenging. 

“I looked at it and I was like, the madness and the isolation that is perceived is nothing bigger than what I went through in my refugee journey,” he told HuffPost Australia.

“It’s nothing close to having a bomb land next to you, having an airstrike burning down the whole town that you lived in. It’s nothing close to living in a refugee camp, so to me, I looked at it on the positive side and said, ‘People are overreacting because I know I have gone through something greater than this’.”

Supplied/Dor Akech Achiek
Dor Akech Achiek, shown here with his four children, arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2003.

Achiek, who now works as a settlement services manager with Settlement Services International (SSI), an organisation that helps refugees and migrants in Australia, said other refugees also feel “re-traumatised” by living through COVID-19. 

He explained many have been reminded of living in confined spaces and “facing detection and persecution back home”. 

“People are looking at themselves and thinking, ‘Wow, there is an opportunity for a repeat of what has happened to my life before, you know, living in fear and not knowing what’s going to happen’.”