Regional refugee services cut, with 1.5 staff members for every 400 clients
Jan Ezidkhalo (right), a refugee himself, used to work for Mercy Community Services, which has had funding cuts. (ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)
Funding changes for regional refugee settlement in Queensland have seen some services cut, as hundreds from Syria and Iraq continue to arrive.
Over the past two years, Toowoomba has welcomed thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq, including many families from the persecuted Yazidi community.
Despite a need for support for the traumatised cohort, a changed federal funding model has seen some services stopped, and others forced to cut staff.
“Prior to the notification about our funding drop, we had no idea that they were going to reduce funds in Toowoomba,” director of CatholicCare’s Toowoomba Refugee and Migrant Support (TRAMS), Kate Venables, said.
TRAMS currently have about 250 clients, and are expecting hundreds more this year. But in late 2018 their funding was reduced from around $390,000 to $240,000.
Part of that now goes towards an interpreting service that was previously government funded.
“So really that made our funding look like approximately $160,000 from the $390,000 — so that’s a massive reduction for us,” Ms Venables said.
“Then obviously that looks like fewer staff. The problem of course with that is, we haven’t got fewer clients.
“Basically we’ve reduced our staff from five down to two.”
Over half of the people TRAMS worked with were Yazidi, an ethnic and religious minority from Iraq and Syria who have suffered genocidal attacks for centuries.
Around 500,000 Yazidis fled their homes leaving possessions scattered on the roadsides as Islamic State forces attacked their villages in northern Iraq in 2014. (ABC News: Tracey Shelton)
More than 200 families from Syria and Iraq have settled in Toowoomba in the past two years, and Ms Venables said the organisation overseeing their initial settlement, Multicultural Development Australia (MDA), was “exiting people as soon as they possibly can”.
“With the increased numbers coming through of the Yazidis, MDA are releasing their clients at 12 months to come over to here,” Ms Venables said.
But MDA acting CEO Brett Pointing said this was not the case.
“For many clients, these [settlement] outcomes may be reached within six to 18 months of arrival in Australia — MDA does not exit clients prematurely from the [humanitarian settlement program],” Mr Pointing said.
MDA normally worked with people from 12 to 18 months after their arrival.
In addition to the changes at TRAMS, the latest changes have seen funding ceased for another Toowoomba refugee settlement service at Mercy Community Services.
Same funding, bigger service area
In a statement, the Department of Social Services said: “Queensland will maintain its share of Settlement Engagement and Transition Support grant funding”.
The cut to funding for some services was partly due to a reduced funding period, and the exclusion of a previous one-off supplementation for the extra Syrian and Iraqi intakes.
But Ms Venables said that while overall funding in Queensland may have stayed the same, the area over which that money was spread, had not.
“So they’ve included a couple of extra areas including Hervey Bay and Bundaberg,” she said.
“They have increased the area, and then decreased the number of service providers in Toowoomba.”
The Toowoomba Yazidi dance group is a symbol the of pride and strength in their new community. (ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)
As for providing interpreting services, the onus was now on the service providers — the department said the previous arrangement was “contrary to the intent of the Free Interpreting Service program”.
In the latest grant guidelines, it was made clear that applicants would have to budget for language services.
From the helped to helper
Syrian refugee Yousef Roumieh used to be a business owner and pharmacist in Damascus.
After war broke out in 2011, he was forced to flee the country with his parents and sister — he now works as bi-cultural support worker at TRAMS.
Syrian refugee Yousef Roumieh (right) spends his work day helping Yazidi refugees like Khudeeda Qoolo with everyday tasks such as reading his mail. (ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)
“All my money, I lost it in these drug stores, the first one was bombed, the second one was stolen — so we lost everything,” Mr Roumieh said.
Coincidentally, the day he arrived was Australia Day 2017.
“It melts my heart actually, because everything is better than the Middle East here Australia,” Mr Roumieh said.
He is Christian, but after five years in a refugee camp in Iraq, he learned to speak the little-known Yazidi dialect of Kurdish-Kurmanji.
As one of the only people in Toowoomba with the right language and cultural skills, his work days were filled helping Iraqi and Syrian refugees with day-to-day tasks like booking appointments, or simply reading mail and text messages.
“There is not enough funding to pay for the supports, this is a big problem,” Mr Roumieh said.
Khudeeda Qoolo is a Yazidi man from northern Iraq and a client of TRAMS.
He said he was grateful to be in Australia, but as the war continued, many in the community functioned under a cloud of uncertainty and trauma.
“There are many difficulties I’m suffering, for me and for my family — because especially we are the Yazidi community, and we suffered before coming to Australia too much from ISIS, Daesh,” Mr Qoolo said.
Of his family, 15 members remain missing in Iraq after being kidnapped by ISIS.
Over many lifetimes, the Yazidi have suffered dozens of genocides, the most recent of which was in 2014.
Complex trauma still raw
Kate Venables said, unlike other refugee cohorts who had settled in Toowoomba, the trauma the Yazidi faced was still raw.
“The Yazidi community didn’t spend time in a refugee camp — what that means is the trauma is very close,” she said.
Neither young nor old could resist joining a spontaneous dance party that erupted during Toowoomba’s refugee week 2018. (ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)
Many Yazidi were forced to flee their traditional homelands around Shingal Mountain in north-west Iraq, as Islamic State militants murdered and kidnapped thousands in August 2014.
“The situation they’ve come out of — their mental health issues are very significant,” Ms Venables said.
“The real concern is that, because of the complexity of the Yazidi group particularly, the hope that mainstream support services could help is somewhat challenged because, to be fair to them, they don’t have the expertise required to be able to support that level of complexity.”
So for now, almost single-handedly, Yousef Roumieh will continue helping Toowoomba’s new Yazidi community navigate day-to-day life in their new home.
“Many simple details, these simple details, it will change their life here.”