By Alice Brooks, ARA Social Support Program volunteer
As I enter Mariam’s house, I’m greeted with the familiar smell of baked goods cooking in the kitchen, mixed with the fresh scent of a house just cleaned, as she steers me into our usual meeting place, her front lounge room – where the sun shines through large open windows that look out onto the shopping centre across the road.
It’s now been nearly a year since I started volunteering with the Australian Refugee Association here in Adelaide and about ten months since Mariam and I started to share one afternoon a week talking, eating Syrian sweets and sipping Turkish coffee from her quaint china tea set.
Each visit begins in the same way, finding out what we have each been up to since the last visit, except this time is a little different due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has meant our usual visits had been reduced to check –in’s via text message and some shared photos of birthday mile stones that we’d missed.
Visiting Mariam as part of the Social Support Program at the Australian Refugee Association (ARA) began as a desire to do more for those seeking refuge on Australian shores, particularly at a time when the Australian government had decided that hard line border control against asylum seeker arrivals would be adopted.
Our visits began back in September of 2019, with the support of ARA Social Engagement Coordinator, Joni.
It was then that I first met Mariam, her five children and her husband for the first time, sitting in the same front lounge room that I have come to know so well.
Whilst awkward at first, the visits made a smooth transition from unsure, to confident and we would pick up where we left off from our last meeting, each time growing our bond and delving deeper into our pasts, our cultural differences (which we often laugh at together) and our mutual love for coffee.
Mariam and her family escaped war torn Aleppo some eight years ago now, making the decision to cross the border to Lebanon and then to Jordan, where the United Nations delivered the news that she and her family would have the opportunity to seek refuge in Australia, arriving in 2016.
Upon arriving, Mariam and her family knew not a word of English, but bravely took on the challenge of adapting to their new home, their new community and their new country as a tight knit unit.
Mariam’s children age from 16 to 2 years old (her youngest child, Hibba, was born here in Adelaide), she met her husband at the tender age of 14, and by 15 had had her first child.
Fast forward and it’s now been four years since Mariam and her family landed on Australian shores and she has since built a life full of friends, family, good food and education that she is immensely proud of and I feel privileged to say that I am even just a small part of her journey.
Our catch ups are something that I look forward to and learn from every time I visit.
We talk about the cultural difference between Muslim and Christian weddings, funerals, having children, playing sport, families, food and holidays we would like to take in the future.
The most important part of the Social Support program for me, is the safe space that you create with your client. In many cases, you become the link between what they know and what they don’t know about the Australian community, becoming the provider of important information and the person they can count on to ask the ‘silly questions’ to.
From understanding bills, to applying for passports and taking the Australian Citizenship Test, to reading books together, writing new words and finding YouTube clips to assist with at home learning, I have been both humbled and immensely grateful to be able to support Mariam to live a full life of opportunities and freedom, here in Australia.
Our next goal together is to study for (and ace) the Australian Citizenship Test, so Mariam can safely leave Australia to visit her parents in Egypt, where they currently reside, after spending the past eight years apart waiting for the opportunity to be together again.
If you would like to become part of the Social Support Program, or volunteer in other ways, we’d love to hear from you. You can register your interest here: www.australianrefugee.org/volunteer