"I think about other people like me and I want to help." Khaled, like many asylum seekers who come to Australia, will never forget the anxiety he felt as he waited for the outcome of his asylum seeker application. Red Cross was there for Khaled in this difficult time. Now Khaled volunteers with Red Cross to make the wait for other asylum seekers less painful.
Khaled, 28, arrived in Australia as an asylum seeker in 2011, having fled his homeland of Iran. It was 18 months before Khaled knew the outcome of his asylum seeker visa application. The prolonged uncertainty led Khaled to feel depressed and anxious. "Everything was strange for me. My challenge was learning to live a life with different rules and new culture."
Khaled was referred to Red Cross for support while he waited for his visa outcome. As Georgia, a Red Cross caseworker, worked with Khaled to provide temporary housing and referrals to health and social services, she realized that what Khaled needed most, was emotional support to help him get back up on his feet.
"I was in low spirits. I felt no hope. I needed support, help and information. Red Cross did that for me," says Khaled.
For many asylum seekers like Khaled, the refugee determination process can be complex and lengthy. Sadness and anxiety frequently worsen as people find themselves in a protracted state of waiting for an uncertain outcome . Many people applying for asylum have experienced torture and trauma, speak little English and live with fear about the future and are unable to work.
With support of Georgia, his caseworker, Khaled began to feel more positive. "She played an important role. For me, she was very good and supported me mentally. She was like my sister, very kind, "says Khalid.
Feeling more comfortable, Khaled decided to help other people who were having a similar experience to his own. Growing up, Khaled tinkered with bikes, so Georgia, suggested that he volunteer for Red Cross Emergency Relief bike program.
The Emergency Relief program provides once off financial or material aid for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants who are suffering financial distress and are not eligible for other support. Many people are at risk of homelessness, malnutrition and destitution.
The program is funded entirely by public donations and private grants to Red Cross. It aims to support people who are not eligible for other existing services and works in collaboration with Red Cross and other community organisations.
The Emergency Relief program adapts to the urgent needs in each state and territory. Working with asylum seekers in Victoria, Red Cross team identified that people need material aid, household set up goods, food vouchers and transport assistance, including refurbished bicycles. In response Red Cross in Victoria addresses these needs.
Dedicated volunteer bike mechanics, like Khaled, recycle, refurbish and recondition second-hand bikes, ensuring they are roadworthy, safe and presentable. Once restored, the bikes are given free of charge to asylum seekers, along with a helmet, lock and pump to keep the rider safe.
The bikes help overcome many challenges that asylum seekers face. Cycling enables people to be independent and self-reliant, which is important for people who frequently struggle with the uncertainty of their situation. As a cheap mode of transport, cycling is a solution for those who do not have sufficient funds for public transport. In addition, cycling has tremendous benefits for those who might be suffering from depression and anxiety.
With a waiting list of asylum seekers requesting a bike, 12 dedicated Red Cross volunteers work hard to meet the demand. In 2012/2013, the program supplied 163 bicycles for men, women and children. The program is reliant on the community for support including donations of bicycles, accessories and tools.
Khaled volunteers for the bike program with Alireza, who also came to Australia as an asylum seeker from Iran. Alireza waited for his visa outcome for more than 15 months and was looking for constructive ways to fill his time.
"I got involved to stay busy," Alireza says. Noting his interest in bikes, a Red Cross case worker suggested that Alireza volunteer for the bike program. He was volunteering at Red Cross when he received the phone call telling him that his protection visa had been approved by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. A world of opportunities opened up for Alireza, but he decided to continue helping others.
"This is my goal. Study community social services, get a qualification and get a job with Red Cross," he says.
Khaled received a protection visa in 2012. He now has a job, but he still volunteers every Friday in the bike workshop in the Red Cross offices in North Melbourne. "I told my manager I can't work on Fridays because I volunteer at Red Cross," he says.
Although he was interested in engineering back in Iran, Khaled's experience since arriving in Australia has changed his aspirations. He's now studying English and plans to become a certified interpreter to help asylum seekers that are going through a similar experience to his. "I never forget my past. I had a difficult situation and many people aided me. Now I want to help them. "
Learn more about our work with asylum seekers and refugees and how you can help.
Photos: Australian Red Cross/Rodney Dekker.