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Refugee Stigma

June 28, 2011 – 6:42 pm9 Comments

By Keren Tuch

There were many thought provoking events on last week in honour of Refugee Week, including the confronting SBS series Go Back To Where You Came From, discussed here and here.

One event I attended was a forum put on by the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria and Multicultural Arts Victoria which was titled Labels & Liabilities: When is a refugee no longer a refugee?  This interesting question was addressed by  three people who came here as refugees themselves; Mr. Kot Monoah, Ms. Nyadol Nyuon and Ms. Mmaskepe Sejoe.  The refugees varied in age and backgrounds but were united on a few common issues.

The word refugee can have a positive meaning, although the only example the speakers referred to was the provision of services by the Australian government or other organisations.  Otherwise, the label was a liability.

A label like refugee, asylum seeker or Jew places people in boxes and in turn affects how both the individuals view themselves, and how the ‘others’ perceive them.   If a refugee kid is misbehaving, it is because he has post-traumatic stress disorder. If another kid is misbehaving, it’s because he’s naughty.

My high school years were full of debates  as to whether I was an Australian Jew or a Jewish Australian, assuming one label was more defining of my identity than another. In reality, both labels only tell part of a story of who I am.

Ms. Nyuon described how being labelled created a stagnant identity for her.  She recalled that when she was in high school she wanted to participate in the normal English class, but the principal thought he was doing her a favour by keeping her in English as a second language class, because she was a refugee.  It was hard for her to shake the label that she thought stifled her personal growth.

It also deflated Ms. Nyuon’s self esteem.  When she was accepted into law school in Australia, she assumed it was because they pitied her refugee plight, and not because she has the same intellectual capacity as her Australian peers doing law.

Labels can also prevent integration into the wider community.   Ms. Sejoe spoke of a yearning to belong to a community.  It pains her when someone asks her where she is from, owing to her dark skin colour.  She replies “Carlton”, where she has lived for more than 20 years and feels connected to the community there.  Unable to shake their curiosity, the typical follow up response is where are you really from?  Community is where you are, even if it is a community of parents of school children in year two.

So when does a refugee stop becoming a refugee?  It seems that it depends on to whom you ask the question to.  If you ask a refugee, perhaps being called a refugee is initially useful to help access services in order to familiarize oneself with the community.  However, there appears to be a turning point when it is useful to get rid of labels and stigmas in order to integrate and be accepted in the wiser community.

The Australian Jewish community is made up of a lot of ‘refugees’, and their descendants. It is incumbent upon us to accept the new refugees, acknowledge the positive contribution they make, and help them shed their label.

Keren Tuch is the Education Director of Jewish Aid Australia, which mobilises the Australian Jewish community in the pursuit of humanitarian relief and social justice for disadvantaged people in Australia and overseas, including Sudanese refugees in Melbourne and Sydney.

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