Ali Al Battaat from Shepparton in Victoria was a baby when he arrived from Iraq via Christmas Island. Today he is helping refugees and others recently arrived in Australia in understanding the complexities of life under Covid 19: what they need to do, what they can’t do and who’s around to help them while the country remains in lockdown.
“My family arrived in Australia in 2000. Dad got here first and we arrived about a year later. I have one brother and three sisters.
“We’re from Iraq originally. Dad had nine brothers and two sisters, but he lost five of his brothers and his father under Saddam Hussein. Dad was an academic and in the 1990s he had to leave Iraq for Iran where he worked in religious studies because he didn’t have the option of continuing his education career in Iran. From Iran he went to Indonesia by plane and then from there to the Australian Nauru detention centre by boat going across the deepest points in the sea. He arrived in Nauru mid 1999 a month after I was born. Later that year we also crossed the sea by boat and arrived at Christmas Island. After being in detention for three months we went to Shepparton to meet my dad.
“Like everything, there were good and bad experiences. At my kindergarten, for example, they had a separate area for the mums who had recently arrived and didn't speak English. It was great, because it meant my mum could be near me all day while learning English. There was so much support for education like this.
“But for my Dad it was tough. He was having a rough time having to look after my family financially and also supporting his family that was still in Iraq. He couldn’t continue his career in education as a teacher of Arabic, but he still worked very hard and he told me over and over again education is very important and you must work hard. He taught me to work hard.
“So education was very important in my family. It's very important in many Iraqi families - they hope we will all end up being doctors and engineers! My sisters all went into childcare related things, my brother became a barber, so it was on me to become a doctor! I didn't do too well with my VCE exams - the stress got to me - but I went to Latrobe University to study Health Science with a view to getting into medicine. After a couple of years I realised it wasn’t for me. I spoke to a social work coordinator, friends and my misses and they suggested studying social work in accordance to my personal skills, values and ethics.
So I transferred and it's been great. I’m really loving it.
“I’ve alway volunteered, since about 2014, through various organisations, helping kids at local primary schools, kids from multi-ethnic backgrounds or from indigenous backgrounds, with their homework. I loved helping these young kids. For the ones who didn't speak English well I could talk to them in Arabic and help them with their work. I’ve also volunteered at multi-cultural events. There was one at Federation Square where I gave a speech - it was after the massacre in Christchurch, NZ, so I talked about that and Jacinda Adern, the Prime “Minister, who really inspires me.. her way of leadership, how she treats people. After the speech someone came up to me from the Council and asked if I’d be interested in getting involved. So I’ve been working there part-time on social cohesion through education projects.
“When Covid-19 hit my initial reaction was to worry! Would uni stop? Would work stop? Would all my social and sport activities have to stop? I knew it was something that could change everything for the worse, or I could use it to grow and learn from this experience. I was meant to be going to schools as part of my work, but that stopped and everything turned to social media.
“I was connecting with a lot of youth via social media anyway and suddenly lots of issues started coming up - kids dropping out of uni, people losing jobs, relationships breaking up, family issues, people wanting to leave home, depression. It escalated week by week, day by day, all the issues coming up on social media. I was showing these to my manager to our team.
“That’s when our team started talking through everything, the reports that family violence had tripled and the impact on our elders in the community. I took over social media for the council and we set out our priorities. It was clear the community was struggling. People were being bombarded with information, from the councils and local government groups, but it was all so complicated and for many people language was a real barrier. SBS shared some of the best language resources through videos and posts.That was a great language resource, but the governments and councils were not filling the void.
“For us we decided a priority was family violence. We’ve still not seen any resources given to family violence in languages other than English so we put together some videos explaining what family violence is and what you can do about it in different languages and we posted them on our Facebook page and other social media. We stuck to that topic for the whole month and the response has been amazing. We put out 34 posts in April and almost ten thousand people looked at them in that time. And it was so easy, it cost so little to do. People just wanted to help, they didn't want to be paid, although we are giving them gift cards now.
“In May we’re focusing on support for youth and education. This virus could change everything for a whole generation. So we’re searching for resources and creating new resources that will help kids get through High School.
“This whole experience, of helping my community through this difficult time, has made me realise the importance of being inclusive. Sometimes there can be a backlash, particularly for me with an Iraqi background, people make comments, but it's also started to bring people together who wouldn’t normally connect which is great. And I strongly believe that no-one should ever be left behind, no one should be left out, always, but particularly when you’re going through a crisis like this.’’