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Shepparton’s refugee and asylum seeker community resilient despite COVID-19

By Charmayne Allison

Most of Sam Atukorala's clients have experienced far worse than social isolation.

They've been crammed on a boat with nothing but sea water to ease the ache in their stomachs.

Their brains tortured by the fate of the families they've left behind, and total uncertainty about what awaits on the next shore.

Or whether they'll even reach the next shore.

This has been the reality for far too many members of Shepparton's refugee and asylum seeker community.

Which is why Ethnic Council of Shepparton strategic engagement co-ordinator Mr Atukorala said the current coronavirus crisis, while immensely challenging, was not about to break the spirit of these communities.

“Most clients we deal with face these types of hurdles every day,” he said.

“They've known uncertainty beyond what most of us have — hopping onto a boat, not knowing where they're going, how long they'll be at sea, whether they'll make it out alive.

“They have fled from country to country on a desperate search for freedom — they've spent time in detention centres.

“Only to arrive in Shepparton where they've had to fight for a visa, a job and to have their families join them here.

“Time and again, our culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities have followed this path to come to Australia.

“They've gone through the hard yards.”

Mr Atukorala urged the Greater Shepparton community to remember the experiences of these vulnerable local groups when dealing with the pandemic.

“Even though many refugees and asylum seekers have lost almost everything, they still share whatever they have,” he said.

“Their experiences have made them stronger and more generous.”

Despite this steely resilience, Mr Atukorala said local CALD communities were not without their anxieties at this time.

“Many, especially those in casual work, are worrying about their future and how they're going to pay the bills,” he said.

“They're also concerned about their health and safety. Just everything the mainstream community is worrying about.”

Language barriers have also made it a challenge to understand government health updates.

However, Greater Shepparton Foundation and Uniting Vic Tas are aiming to combat this by creating a series of videos in seven languages explaining key COVID-19 advice.

Like many other organisations across town, the Ethnic Council has moved its many services online.

But manager Chris Hazelman said the wide world of Zoom meetings and WhatsApp chats were nothing new for CALD communities.

“They've already been using it to communicate with families overseas,” he said.

“We're hoping to deliver as many of our programs electronically as we can. But it will be a struggle, particularly as people in these communities can already be quite isolated.

“It's sad that all the outings and events we had to connect with these groups are gone.

“But in the meantime, we're just trying to stay in contact through community leaders and keep them up to date on COVID-19 announcements.”

Mr Atukorala urged Shepparton's mainstream communities to continue to look to refugees and asylum seekers for perspective in this anxious time.

“There are things we can learn from these communities,” he said.

“They care only for their loved ones. They can't think of anything better than just being together at this time.

“Jobs, houses, money — nothing compares to that.”

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