This week has been Refugee Week in Melbourne, with many gatherings around town to recognise the contributions refugees make to our community.

Australia accepts about 13 500 refugees every year through its humanitarian entrance program. A few thousand asylum seekers also arrive by boat and are often caught up in the political point scoring of our successive federal governments.

Refugees and asylum seekers face many challenges settling in Australia. There is the language barrier, cultural adjustment, as well as often dealing with the loss of family and friends.

This week I met up with three remarkable individuals who had all taken the journey to Australia as refugees; Suzanna Sailo from Burma, Adila Karimi from Afghanistan and Joseph Youhana from Iraq.

I also spoke with prominent human rights lawyer Brian Walters SC, who explained the political side of refugee settlement. He took the Tampa case to the federal court in 2001 and is passionate about defending the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.

Suzanna Sailo

My name is Suzanna Sailo, I am a refugee from Burma. I landed in Melbourne on 15 October 2008, but before that we were living in India as refugees for eight and a half years.

We are survivors, we are fighters, we are hard workers and we have dreams and hopes. I want the Australia people to know we are not just here to add to the population, but to become on of them and a family. We are Australian. We want to contribute.

I am one of the leaders of the Mizo community. In March 2009, we set up the Melbourne Mizo Association and I am the cultural secretary. At our association we are teaching our children how to be good Australians. We teach them to be grateful, but never to forget your roots.

Australians know refugees are homeless and many Australians feel sadness and pity, but they don’t really understand what it is like. I want people to know we are human beings and we were not refugees in our past lives. We have lost so many loved ones, never to see them again and never to see the places where we grew up.

When I pass people in the street and they smile at me, I just feel so much a part of Australia. A hug and love from an Australian just means so much to us. Please help the refugees, be a voice for them, so that they have a future to look forward to and so they can be proud people and stand up high.

Adila Karimi

My name is Adila Karimi and I belong to the Afghan community. I came to Australia in March 2007 and at the moment I am working as a youth support worker and community guide with Australian Multicultural Education Services (AMES). I am studying a Bachelor of Social Science and a part-time course of a Diploma of Interpreting in the Dari language.

Australians might know Afghanistan is a place where there are terrorists or Taliban. If you want to understand – we are Afghans – but we are not

violent. There are terrorists in our country but we are not terrorists, it’s just specific groups that are doing these things. Everyone wants to live in their own country, but it’s not our fault that we are unable to live there.

We have the same capabilities as everyone else who lives in their own countries. The students used to make fun of me at my school at the beginning of year 11 because of my accent. It was really fantastic for me to beat some of those students when I finished year 12! If you keep workinghard, it’s never impossible to achieve what you want no matter where you are from.

A big change for the refugee community would be if there was greater awareness of their situation. The best thing you can do is try to understand a refugee. We can create programs through schools where young children can be friends with the new arrivals. There have been examples where refugee kids don’t want to go to school because they feel isolated, lonely, they dress differently, and they don’t speak the language. Everyone knows that no one wants to be a refugee.

Joseph Youhana

My name is Joseph Youhana and I came from Iraq in July 2006. Australia is a unique country because it is possible to fulfil your dreams. There is always ‘yes’ and nothing is impossible, if you are passionate you can get there.

I started volunteering and working at a migrant resource centre as a youth leader, and now I am working for AMES as a host worker, helping new people settle into Australia. When people arrive they often struggle to find accommodation, so we help them to get accommodation through private rentals.

When I came to Australia, I told people I was Christian and they were shocked. One man even asked me if I was Sunni or Shia and he couldn’t understand I was Catholic.

I’m looking to make a contribution to the whole community, to make everyone back home proud, so they can see that we have done something here. Now things in Iraq are much better than before, hopefully one day a lot of people can go back to Iraq and enjoy the country.

Brian Walters SC

People are always going to have fears and will want to marginalize others, and Australia has a long history of it. White Australia was the first statute passed by parliament when our country was federated in 1901.

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, we had boatpeople coming to Australia from Vietnam. They were coming in larger numbers than we are seeing now. The then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was always reassuring, he always said we’ll handle the arrivals; they are not a threat to our nation.

Fast forward to 2001 and with the Tampa and we have a very different approach. I took the case against the government to the federal court with Liberty Victoria. We got the judgement from the first judge on 11 September 2001, which was, because of the time difference, just before the attacks in New York. The Australian Government immediately appealed and before the full court the case was heard that week – it was rushed through.

Dealing with the terror cases after 9/11, terrorism has become a term link to particular ethnic groups. Our leaders have been shameless in using the media to relate boat arrivals with terrorism.

In November 2005, John Howard reconvened the federal parliament and said we’ve got news of an imminent terrorist attack and we’ve got to pass urgent laws. The next working day after the laws were passed, the Melbourne thirteen were arrested. I appeared in court on the bail application on the first day. These kids were just young bucks from the western suburbs.

Our leaders need to take positions that are reassuring, that don’t divide Australia and don’t feed bias. In that way we can have a greater richness in cultural diversity and creativity that comes from learning from each other.