Australia: The agency of refugees
09 March 2018

Carolina Gottardo, second from right, speaking at the Australian Refugee Alternatives Conference in February (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Many thanks for giving a girl a dream and the weapon to fight gender inequality and gender based violence.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) was well represented at a recent Australian conference titled Refugee Alternatives, held on 13-14 February in Melbourne with more than 400 attendees.

Refugees leading the agenda

Australia’s JRS Director Carolina Gottardo participated in the opening and closing addresses. Among the 65 speakers at the conference were more than 60% with lived experience as a refugee; more than 60% of the speakers were women. Together the panellists examined current and potential solutions for refugees and other forcibly displaced people in Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and internationally.

Carolina said, "Together conference participants worked towards an Australian Plan of Action, examining Australia in the context of global refugee policy, in the Asia-Pacific region and at the national level. I was honoured to be part of such an inspiring conference and to hear firsthand about the initiatives and projects –in Australia, in the region and globally –that are being led by refugees and people seeking asylum and are making a difference."

She highlighted how the conference "has turned upside down the dynamics of power, with refugees and people seeking asylum at centre stage and leading the agenda on the policies that affect their lives. This conference focused on alternatives and solutions."

Carolina addressed the conference on the Global Compact on Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees, noting the importance of coordinating local, national, regional and global work and of ensuring that the Global Compacts do more than just addressing high-level issues: "We need to ensure that the compacts have a real impact on the lives of refugees, people seeking asylum and migrants."

The empowerment of education

Carolina and other JRS Australia staff attending the conference were delighted to meet with a former refugee whose engagement with JRS has empowered her to become a community advocate. Deruka Dekuek was attending the conference on behalf of her organisation, Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council, where she is a mentor, supporting refugees who have recently immigrated to the city.

Deruka was born in war-torn Sudan. When she was seven years old her father died after being tortured. For the next seven years she and her mother and sisters lived in the bush, walking miles daily for water and firewood. Attending school was out of the question. 

It was only at age 15 that Deruka could finally attend kindergarten, when she lived in Nairobi with a family member. When she had to move to Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp two years later, she had reached Year 5 level. She had two more terms of schooling at Kakuma; she loved studying and topped her class, but this meant “beatings from the boys (who didn’t want to lose to a girl) and being rejected by the girls”.

Kakuma has a refugee population of more than 170,000, and JRS is one of the organisations advocating for the rights of the refugees and running program to offer them empowerment. Recognising Deruka’s potential, JRS workers at Kakuma offered her a scholarship to attend a school outside the camp. 

For Deruka, this was a breakthrough opportunity. “Thanks to JRS for empowering me with the scholarship opportunity and enabling me to realise the power of education! The scholarship has enabled me to have wings and break the cycle of desperation and long endured poverty.” She also notes that going to school “liberated me from the daily tasks facing all the other girls at the camp of walking for the water and firewood which took hours each day.”

In 2004 Deruka moved to Australia when she and family members were granted settlement visas. Always mindful of the power of education, she resumed her studies after settling into life in Australia and starting a family. She gained a Certificate in Aged Care and a Diploma in Community Services, and later a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 2018 she is completing an MA in Development Studies.

Deruka said: “I will always be grateful to JRS, to the people who gave me a chance to learn. Many thanks for giving a girl a dream and the weapon to fight gender inequality and gender based violence. Education will empower more girls for generations!”

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