21/06/2017 10:57 AM AEST | Updated 21/06/2017 10:57 AM AEST

Simple Acts Of Kindness Can Change A Refugee's Life

Jean is a lawyer fluent in five languages. He's currently working at a supermarket.

Don Bayley
If you can help a refugee, it could change their trajectory.

A young lawyer who once represented his former country on the global stage now pushes trollies at a suburban supermarket.

Despite a long hard battle to get here, Jean is brimming with hope, and says he couldn't have done it without the help of his 'Australian family'.

It's Refugee Week so we're sharing Jean's story. But we see it over and over again: the story of how people can recover, thrive and contribute with a little help when it matters most.

Jean was born as refugee in Rwanda. The Rwanda genocide forced him to return to a homeland he had never seen -- Burundi. There he worked hard, and years later became a lawyer representing his country in negotiations at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva. But Jean's life was threatened by violent political opponents, so upon arriving to Australia as a post-graduate student he applied for a protection visa.

Some of our country's most prominent Australians have come from refugee backgrounds.

During this time, like many people seeking asylum, he felt isolated, struggling to survive while his temporary status hindered his ability to find work. He didn't have much more than his determination to succeed.

Jean says it was an elderly couple he met at his local church that helped him survive. He calls them his 'Australian parents' with love and respect evident in his voice.

They had invited him to their home, listened to his stories, and repeatedly found ways to help him that continued to surprise him. They gave him the first proper bed he slept on in Australia.

Jean, who is fluent in five languages, is currently working at a supermarket to make his living. But he's happy to be given a chance. He says: "I'm not qualified to push trollies, and it's not my destiny, but it's better than sitting on my bum doing nothing."

He sees it as a stepping stone in his new life -- Jean has aspirations to be a teacher.

To better understand how we can help, Red Cross and other industry partners have partnered with the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program at UNSW in an ongoing study to learn about the key concerns of refugees in the Australian community, and what could help or hinder them flourishing in our society.

This world-first study aims to gather the perspectives of 1000 refugees over a number of years and will continue to shine light on the subject. However, the findings of the pilot study with 247 refugees show one clear thing: that the post-migration environment plays a pivotal role in the mental health of individuals from refugee backgrounds.

Put simply: refugees need the support of a community to be able to survive, thrive, succeed and contribute to Australian society.

The study also showed the key things that refugees are concerned about in their first years in Australia, illustrating some of the factors that affect their wellbeing.

Of the refugees with permanent residency surveyed, one in two are worried about not being able to find work, one in three worried about not getting enough income to survive, and one in three battled with loneliness. One in two said they were worried about family in other countries -- with many of the refugees being an important source of income for relatives left behind, who often remain under threat.

Almost all those surveyed with insecure residency or uncertain visa status feared being sent back to the country they'd fled, and not being able to apply for a permanent visa.

Another major worry was how refugees are presented in the media.

We think that conversations and simple practical help can change everything. They build trust and understanding, launch friendships and open doors, create safety and most importantly hope.

Refugees tell us that the simplest favours go a long way: like being shown how our public transport works, how to rent a house, find a job, or how to get to the local library or hospital. Living in Australia requires knowledge that most of us accumulate over a lifetime; imagine how valuable that knowledge is to someone who's been here for a month.

Many of the refugees worried about how to transition to working life in Australia, especially when hard-earned credentials are not recognised, or years of experience are dismissed by prospective employers. They just want a chance to put in the hard work to succeed and contribute.

Imagine the difference some professional mentoring or a foot in the door can make to someone in that situation.


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Some of our country's most prominent Australians have come from refugee backgrounds. Like Australian Red Cross ambassador and orthopaedic surgeon Dr Munjed Al Muderis, who fled from Iraq after refusing to torture people; ABC presenter and scientist Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, whose family survived the holocaust; AFL star Majak Daw who came here with his family from civil wars in Sudan, and WWII refugee Frank Lowy whom you can thank for bringing Australia its biggest shopping malls.

For each of these famous former refugees, there are thousands more like Jean, who quietly give what they can to their new country. Throughout Australia, everyday, people from refugee backgrounds contribute in different ways to enrich our wonderfully diverse community. And Australians reach out to help them do this.

This Refugee Week, let's imagine an Australia where everyone feels welcome, well-connected and safe. Let's imagine even more Australians helping every day -- simple, practical, acts of kindness that can help every refugee to reach their full potential.