On a dreary Sunday afternoon in late March, the sort that provides a harsh lesson on what Melbourne weather is capable of, a Syrian refugee talks through an interpreter about her escape from the conflict that has torn her homeland apart.
Amena*, who along with about 100 other refugees from Syria and Iraq settled in the suburb of Eltham on the outskirts of north-east Melbourne a year ago, escaped not just endless civil war but an abusive and violent domestic situation.
She is one of six newly arrived refugees who have met in an Eltham church to discuss with local volunteers what help is needed to further settle in, what sort of work they are looking for and how best to practise their English.
Amena says that since arriving in Australia she feels safe for the first time in many years.
“I feel like I’m with my family now,” Amena says, gesturing to Eltham residents. “This is my country now. I feel safe, I feel very happy … I’m very proud that I’m in Australia.”
The afternoon tea meeting was organised by Welcome to Eltham, a community group formed to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have been settled in the suburb. The group has helped newly arrived residents with everything from English to driving lessons, and helped many to find new jobs.
Welcome to Eltham was formed shortly before the refugees arrived in December 2016. A block of about 60 unused units on the same site as the St Vincent’s aged care facility in Eltham had been selected as a resettlement site. The block, which had been abandoned since it was damaged in floods in 2010, was to be rebuilt in partnership with CatholicCare and used to house the refugees.
The plan sparked protests from Australian far-right groups, culminating with the so-called Battle for Eltham in late 2016, when groups descended on the suburb to protest against the refugees’ arrival.
But the Eltham locals banded together and rallied against the outside agitators, adorning the town with more than 8,000 butterflies, in reference to the copper butterfly found in the area that was saved more than 30 years ago by the community. Many residents also marched down its main street in a show of support for the refugees.
In the face of outside opposition and hate, many of the local residents decided to show the newly arrived refugees what the town was really like, going above and beyond in welcoming the new arrivals.
When the first refugee arrived just before Christmas in 2016, she was met with housewarming gifts organised by Welcome to Eltham, including household essentials and a welcome book signed by hundreds of locals.
Since then, about 100 refugees have been settled in the units in Eltham. Many of Welcome to Eltham’s members have taken courses in English tutoring to teach the refugees, with a small cohort making the trek to Brunswick every Friday evening to teach the parents of the children who are at marching band practice next door.
The group has also provided subsidised driving lessons for their new neighbours.
“There was no one providing that for this community,” says Welcome to Eltham’s founder, Nina Kelabora. “So that was just a really quiet way of giving people independence and increasing their connections to the broader community.”
At the afternoon tea, new Eltham resident Lely says: “We are so happy here … We didn’t think it would happen like this, and that this would come. My experience has been very good.”
Several events have also been held in Eltham to help integrate the two communities, and introduce some Iraqi and Syrian culture to the Australians. This included a dance featuring a Syrian and Iraqi band, and a hafla in which everyone brought a plate of food from their home country.
“It was an opportunity for people to get to know some of the Syrians and Iraqis in a natural way,” says the Welcome to Eltham president, Gillian Essex. “It was a joy to watch people engaging with each other.”
Cooking and sharing food has been how many of the refugees have shared their culture. At the afternoon tea, Iraqi and Syrian dishes sit next to Australian party classics, the food providing an easy conversation starter.
It is the spontaneous, natural encounters that are most powerful, Essex says. Such as when a newly arrived refugee found a vine leaf that she used to cook with back in Syria in a local’s front garden. She promptly knocked on the front door and asked to use it. The neighbour agreed, and even got to taste the final product.
The Welcome to Eltham team says they have been able to see their new neighbours transform before their eyes, into comfortable and happy people.
“It has been wonderful watching people begin to flourish when we find them work experience or match them up with local enthusiasts in their field of work,” Essex says. “These people have lost so much and when they come many struggle with learning English and getting used to our culture. But once they find work, they thrive and their English improves dramatically, along with their confidence.”
For Kelabora, it is all about the quiet moments, away from the spotlight and bigger crowds.
“Like having a cup of tea with someone and learning about Arabic tea – those really quiet moments are the most fulfilling,” she says. “A lot of the satisfaction for me comes from hearing those stories, the stuff that is happening by itself.”
The experience has also transformed Eltham itself.
“People say that the only thing wrong with Eltham is it’s too white-bread, and we need more multigrain,” Essex says. “This is reinforcing who we are as a community. We are generous and we are embracing of other people and cultures.”
The refugees that are over the age of 55 can stay on in their accommodation in Eltham after it is transitioned to seniors’ accommodation, when the resettlement program comes to an end in September. Of the 12 units that house older refugees, all are looking to remain in the area.
Sara is one of the refugees at the weekend meeting. She worked as an Arabic and English teacher in Syria before the outbreak of the war, and helps with some of the interpreting on the day.
“I want to make something in Australia, so the people see this Syrian girl wants to do something,” Sara says. “I hope to do something good for Australia.”
* Names have been changed to protect anonymity