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Women help each other find strength

A new program in Queensland is welcoming newcomers and helping women connect to their community.

Safia loves the connections she's made with other women in the town.

Safia loves the connections she's made with other women in the town.

Safia has two powerful phrases that describe her new life in Australia: "I have survived. I am safe," she says with a smile so bright it lights up the room.

The mother of five surviving children has endured unthinkable horrors since she fled Sudan to eventually make a new home in a rural Queensland town.

While she relishes the freedom of her new country, Safia says at first she found it hard to make friends and fit in.

Which is where Red Cross comes in.

Red Cross had been supporting people for several years in Gatton, where there is a significant number of vulnerable migrant women and families having difficulty accessing services.

Caseworker Sue Williams explains: "We asked the women what they'd like to do in order to feel more connected to the community. One of the areas they said they'd like to focus on was a women's group with activities including sewing, English, support with job networks, and volunteering as a way of giving something back."

A weekly women's group was born, where as many as 30 migrant and asylum seeker women from countries including Sudan, Papua New Guinea, The Philippines and the Solomon Islands come together under the practiced eyes of local women, many of whom are from families who have been living in the area for generations, and who put their hands up to be mentors and tutors.

Safia and Sue: watching new connections grow each week.

Safia and Sue: watching new connections grow each week.

Safia says she looks forward to the weekly women's group.

"We do many things. We have very nice communication with different cultures. We talk together and our English is going better. We learn from different cultures. I like this group. It makes us happy because sometimes to be at home is boring," she says.

"It's a safe country but some people are very mean to black people. They don't like our skin. When we go to the shop or the bank or something like that some people are looking at you, you can see from their eyes they are mean.

"All the people are saying hello and talking very nicely but for us sometimes they are very mean. They never say hi. So now we have the women's group which make us very happy.

"Before we didn't have the women's group it was boring. Our friends were going out to work and just staying home, there was nowhere to go where you could talk. But now in the women's group it's very nice. I'm very comfortable here."

Another area which is proving hugely valuable - and not just for the migrant women - is volunteering at the local Red Cross Op Shop.

Sue Williams: "We were able to link them into the retail shop in Gatton where they've received peer support, one-on-one support with a volunteer who's been at the shop for some time to help them get used to it and get familiar with the ways the shop works."

Carole, who's originally from the Gold Coast, has been volunteering at the shop for 11 years.

"Any migrant ladies that want to come here we welcome them. We're always pleased to have someone different. It helps me understand the country they come from, how they lived, and their cultures. It broadens our outlook as well as their outlook. It works both ways."

Red Cross volunteer Carole has made a whole new world of connections.

Red Cross volunteer Carole has made a whole new world of connections.

One of the migrant volunteers is Agnes, originally form Papua New Guinea, who, after working five Christmases, is feeling very much at home.

"I feel comfortable when I'm around the ladies," she says. Agnes says Karen, her mentor, is like a big aunty.

Agnes is happy working with the Red Cross girls

Agnes: "Happy working with the Red Cross girls"

"On my first day here I wasn't feeling comfortable. I was in my shell. Where I come from we always see men as up there but ladies are down there. But here I can do anything that white girls do. Maybe it's because I came in and these people give me a job and I work with them. It makes me learn how to speak more English. For me it helps me a lot. I can communicate and I'm really happy with that.

"And it feels good to give."

The whole project is drawing wider support. A union has donated five new sewing machines, a local business donated laptops, two retired English teachers are volunteering with English lessons, and a church has donated the use of their hall.

Sue says some of the women are emerging as leaders and are encouraging other members of their community who are still too shy to leave their homes.

"We have women across the cultures that are taking a lead role in the women's group and are helping us to understand where they want to go from here."

Ultimately, she says Red Cross aims to walk away from the group because it's no longer needed. She envisages a group which is able to direct and sustain itself, welcoming newcomers to the town, and continuing to encourage connections across the wider community.

This program has received the funding support of the Department of Social Services.

If you'd like to do more to make migrants and refugees welcome visit 5 things to make a difference.

Words: Susan Cullinan | Images: Amelia Wong

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