A JOB, a home, a stable family life – it was the promise of “wealth for toil” that gave hope to so many new arrivals to Australia, but for tens of thousands of them, those hopes were dashed in a matter of weeks by sweeping job cuts in the wake of the pandemic.
It was unlikely they would find jobs for a long time, Sunnybank parishioner and Active Refugee and Migrant Integration Australia founder Protais Muhirwa said.
He saw it coming; not the pandemic, but the vulnerability.
“Nobody was listening to me, I hope they’re going to listen to me for once,” Mr Muhirwa said.
It was at the end of February, surrounded by friends and supporters at ARMIA’s fifth anniversary, that Mr Muhirwa told The Catholic Leader of the ongoing turmoil facing new arrivals to Australia.
Without funding, ARMIA relied on ranks of volunteers who offered counselling and English classes and a way off Centrelink dependency for hundreds of families.
But those livelihoods hung on a knife’s edge and as the pandemic took its toll, many of those families were the first to lose breadwinners.
The toughest part was that ARMIA had brought so many families from hardship to prosperity.
ARMIA had taught working-age men and women English, had helped them get jobs, had supported the mental health of their families and brought “harmony at home”.
Much of those gains were lost and many threatened to revert entirely.
“We have really worked hard to remove many people from Centrelink (dependency),” Mr Muhirwa said.
“Now they have lost their jobs.
“To get new jobs is going to be super complicated with more than a million Australians looking for jobs.
“We’re talking about people who are not really competitive on the job market – not because they can’t do the job, of course they can do the job – but their English is limited, they don’t have a sophisticated resume, they don’t know how to write the selection criteria, et cetera.”
Health advice was not much advice at all to the million Australians who did not speak English, either.
“That million and more Australians could not understand what was going on with this coronavirus,” Mr Muhirwa said.
“Even those who speak English are still struggling to understand what’s going on.
“So those poor people who don’t speak English could not understand many or most of the messages; they cannot understand what is the use of this mask, or the use of sanitisers because they’ve never used it in their life.”
This also meant some of the multicultural communities had not followed health advice about social distancing, he said.
“They kept meeting as they used to do,” Mr Muhirwa said.
He said it had been “miraculous” that COVID-19 clusters had not formed.
Even so, the recovery from pandemic was going to be slow and possibly more lethal than the pandemic itself, he said.
There had been 97 Australian COVID-19 deaths at time of writing, but Mr Muhirwa had seen evidence the suicide and domestic violence rates had escalated.
The outcomes of those increased rates would be catastrophic and have lasting mental health scars, which were familiar to those who sought ARMIA’s help.
He said in his experience, those people who exited the settlement programs, who had been humanitarian refugees brought in by UNHCR and the immigration department, came from war-torn countries with significant mental health issues.
They had escaped from Iraq, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere.
“(These are) people who have experienced lots of traumatic experiences – many have even been tortured, many of the women have been raped many times,” Mr Muhirwa said.
These vulnerable people needed ongoing support, which was limited at the best of times.
Treatment required an abundance of time and trust from the counsellor.
With increased pressures on families from financial stress to simply being cooped up together for extended periods of time, Mr Muhirwa said “domestic violence ignited very easily”.
“All those past untreated stories, experiences come up very easily,” he said.
“The coronavirus has re-ignited those unhealed deep wounds.”
The elderly had become “terribly worse”, he said.
“We have had cases where some very isolated elderly people who used to run to hospitals or local clinics for some support, because of the coronaviruses, they were told ‘Don’t come’,” Mr Muhirwa said.
ARMIA was at the coalface, travelling to check up on vulnerable members of the community like the elderly and people with disabilities.
Mr Muhirwa said without their visits the situation for those stuck at home would be “much worse”.
Mr Muhirwa urged Australians to look out for one another.
“All they want is to feed themselves,” Mr Muhirwa said.
“Of course, we have to continue to provide appropriate culturally competent services to those in need.”
And his Aussie spirit certainly wasn’t broken and there was still wealth for toil.
“The most important thing is our country is generally generous,” he said.
“Australians are very generous.
“It is really important individually and collectively, up to the highest levels of government, to really continue to show that generosity.
“We really need that generosity but we need new approaches, ground-based approaches to really tackle chronic unemployment in certain communities.”
It was unclear what the future held for those who were stuck out of a job, but for now, ARMIA was ready to hold the breach.