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Young refugees and migrants: thinking outside the square

Dr. Sean Perera

Farz Edraki sits down with ANU research fellow, Dr. Sean Perera

Imagine if instead of spinning the same “stop-the-boats” message, the government focused on ways new arrivals can contribute to Australian society?

That’s precisely what Sean Perera, Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, set out to examine.

Dr. Perera recently released a study that looked at settlement programs for young humanitarian migrants in Australia — with a scientific twist. He wanted to find out whether science communication can be better integrated into the resettlement process to help young refugees “acclimatise” to their new home countries.

As a cross-cultural science communicator, Perera looks at how science can be explained to and incorporated into the lives of the marginalised — people he says “fall through the cracks”. People like young refugees.

He narrowed his research focus to one case study: culturally and linguistically diverse immigrants aged 15 to 25 from the Middle East and Africa, settled in Goulburn. People in this young age bracket are often overlooked.  But they’re in their formative period of forging their new identities; it’s also likely they’ll make up part of Australia’s future population — two key reasons why Perera thinks it’s important to study young refugees.

With this idea in mind, he took people from the Goulburn group to a number of science institutions: including Questacon, Discovery Centre of CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Canberra at the ANU and the Reptile Centre.

He also talked to them about the possibilities of taking up a career in science in Australia. After several months of meeting with these refugees, he discovered some interesting trends.

For one thing, these immigrants often felt like they didn’t have a sense of entitlement in their new country. In particular, before visiting institutions like Questacon, many hadn’t felt like they could get the courage to go to scientific and technology landmarks.

According to Perera’s report, “Except for one, everybody [immigrants] said ‘before I didn’t know what to do if I came here. I used to feel scared … but now I know this is a place I can visit.”

 Resettlement of migrants and refugees sets low bar

Perera sees this as symptomatic of the existing settlement regime for immigrants in Australia — which sees settlement itself as an end rather than a means to broader acclimatisation in society.

“[The resettlement process] is very superficial; it’s about getting a person a place to stay or getting a job… and these things depend on the refugee community that is already there.

“Refugees go into things that they think are acceptable for them, like manual labour or farm labour … in Goulburn, for example, they’re most likely to work in the abattoir … and they lock themselves in those positions and they don’t feel there’s a way out.

“Settlement gives them a job but they don’t see what connection their job has to the community … they don’t see themselves transitioning.

Perera’s research turns much of the existing dialogue on immigrants on its head. Instead of approaching immigrants as a threat to Australia’s culture and broadly-termed ‘way-of-life’, the study focuses on the opportunities they represent — for both themselves and broader Australian society.

According to his findings, giving refugees access to science education gives them a greater chance to connect to the community they live in. What’s more, it’s likely that they’re in a good position to make a meaningful contribution.

Perera recommends that the government change its “superficial” resettlement scheme. Not enough is done to recognise refugees’ “connection to society” and there aren’t enough informal education programs about science and technology for migrants.

“This doesn’t mean you have to create a separate multicultural science programs.  You just have to make sure it’s more culturally and linguistically diverse.” This could include delivering science programs in different languages, or having facilitators who are aware of different cultural sensitivities.

 Medical research beckons immigrant

One young immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – Musare Gasirimu – decided to undertake a university career in medical research after taking part Dr Sean Perera study.

“As a result of the Opening Doors project I learned about the Associate Degree in Science and Technology. For the first time in a long time I could see a bright future for studying science and medicine.”

Before coming to Australia, Musare was interested in medicine, but says he lacked the support to pursue his dream once he arrived here. Learning about scientific careers helped change that.

“As I grew up, I witnessed unfair treatment of sick people, especially pregnant women and young children. I knew in my heart that when I grew up I wanted to help people in my village with proper scientific medicine.”

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