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For skilled professionals forced to flee countries such as Syria, the challenges they face getting their qualifications certified in Australia harm the wider community as much as they harm them. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Skills recognition for refugees

Bashir Mohamad Ahmad spent 30 years working as a doctor in Syria, specialising in internal medicine.

He says he was forced to flee Syria with his wife and four children after Daesh started targeting professionals.

“Before I left Syria, there was a lot of war and they targeted doctors and engineers and teachers,” Ahmad says.

Ahmad settled in Melbourne in 2014 but, thus far, he has been unable to work in his area of expertise.

“It’s very difficult to not work. In Syria, I used to work for 16 hours, six days a week,” he says.

“There are a lot of barriers for me to get a job. The first barrier and very difficult is English language. I started studying English here in Australia and to be honest there is no specific care for us for professionals in a medical career to learn English.”

The 59-year-old says it has been difficult to get his qualifications certified as a result. “Everything here requires money.”

The exams Ahmad would have to take cost about $3000 each. “I can’t do anything here without my registration,” he says.

If Ahmad does raise the necessary funds to pay for the exams and registration, he will still be approaching retirement age and may not be able to practise for as long as he would like.

Bashir Mohamad Ahmad’s story doesn’t surprise Norma Medawar.

A former English tutor and tour guide in Syria, she, too, fled the conflict in her homeland and sought refuge in Australia in 2015.

Her ability to communicate fluently in English meant her integration in Australia wasn’t as challenging as some of her compatriots.

“Most of them, you feel, are not happy,” she says. “They’re not comfortable, especially in the first year of their arrival. They feel lost and they need someone to talk on their behalf. It’s really sad.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services says nearly 18,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq were resettled in the past financial year. They said all the families from the additional intake of 12,000, announced by Tony Abbott, have since been resettled in Australia, with the final visas granted in March.

Norma Medawar works for Whittlesea Community Connections, helping to support other Syrian migrants in Australia.

She says Syrians – like many migrants and refugees from non-English-speaking backgrounds – face many hurdles when they arrive in Australia, with the language barrier top of the list.

Medawar says younger Syrians are quick to pick up English but the older generation struggle. As a result, many have difficulty finding work.

Cath Scarth, the chief executive of AMES Australia, one of the main settlement service providers in the country, says inability to find work can also impact the mental health of refugees.

Scarth says there are many Syrian refugees who are highly skilled who can’t get their qualifications certified.

“The process of getting qualifications – the whole medical registration process – is long for anybody coming from overseas. It’s a very long process,” she says.

“If they don’t have the social and financial support to do that, then it becomes very difficult. Then it means they end up in a lower-paid, dead-end job, not utilising their skills, and really nobody benefits. We as a community don’t benefit, because there’s someone there that has skills that we don’t utilise.”

Eddie Micallef, the chairperson of the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria, which represents migrants and refugees in the state, says the situation is ridiculous. “We’re missing out on so much potential to make a valuable contribution to this country.”

He believes that, apart from the lengthy and expensive process to get skills assessed, many migrants and refugees also experience discrimination.

“I also think the professional organisations are not helpful in some cases,” he says. “They do put obstacles in the way and make it difficult on the basis of keeping the standards high.”

Micallef says highly skilled refugees should have the opportunity to work in an ancillary capacity while they wait to get their skills assessed.

He is also calling for reviews of these processes, to take into consideration the unique challenges refugees face compared with skilled migrants when looking for employment in their area of expertise.

Cath Scarth agrees. She says there are ways of improving employment outcomes for refugees by educating registration boards, universities and employers about the challenges they face.

“It’s difficult when in some cases people were not able to bring papers with them. It’s not necessarily the thing that you’re thinking about bringing when you’re fleeing.”

Norma Medawar says housing is another challenge Syrian refugees are facing on arrival in Australia.

“The first few months when you arrive, it’s really hard to get a house. You don’t have a history here. Many of the refugees are on Centrelink payments, and many landlords want tenants that have jobs, which makes it hard.”

Medawar says her sister arrived in Australia with her husband six weeks ago and has been unable to find permanent housing.

“She is living in temporary housing, which is far from where I live. We can’t help her. We can’t take her anywhere because I don’t drive and she can’t go to the GP.”

Adding to the isolation the couple face living away from their family members is age.

“They are old. She’s my eldest sister. The husband is 70 years old,” Medawar says.

The Victorian Public Tenants Association says there is a long waiting list before refugees can access public housing.

“When you look at the waiting list, there’s an argument that says the priority group is over 55, but they’re not building housing for single people and they’re not building housing for large families, and that’s the problem,” says Mark Feenane, the association’s executive officer.

He says there is no growth in the public housing sector.

“We’re seeing families now living in three-bedroomed places where they’ve got five, six, seven kids. There are families growing and there is nowhere else for them to actually go, so they live in overcrowded situations and the government needs to address the lack of affordable housing,” he says.

“It’s not just this government; it’s governments plural. There’s a real failure to supply sufficient public housing to meet the demand and the need and it’s only getting worse.”

In a statement to The Saturday Paper, the Department of Social Services said Syrian refugees – like other humanitarian entrants – often undergo a period of adjustment during the early stages of settlement.

It said its humanitarian settlement program provides early, practical support to refugees on arrival and throughout their initial settlement.

But as many experts working in settlement areas highlight, the process of supporting newly arrived migrants and refugees should be a long-term one. Addressing these challenges can achieve greater social and economic benefits, not just for refugees but also for the broader community.

For Bashir Mohamad Ahmad, employment isn’t just about contributing to his adopted homeland. It also plays a significant role in him finding meaning and purpose in life.

“The value of a person is by working,” he says. “If you don’t work, everything is bad for you. And you think badly about your life.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 3, 2018 as "Contributing factors". Subscribe here.

Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.