Researching a novel can be very challenging. But the right advisers can make it an extraordinary learning journey. Jasmina Bajraktarevic from STARTTS was one of my key advisers in the research and evolution of my novel Detention about an escape from an immigration detention centre and a school lockdown.
Jasmina is the Community Services Coordinator at STARTTS, an organisation dedicated to rehabilitating survivors of trauma, including refugees. Here, Jasmina gives insight into her work at STARTTS, her own refugee experience and whether she feels that books about the refugee and asylum seeker experience can make a difference.
What drives you to work with refugees?
This question takes me a long way back! In my teenage years I made a personal commitment to non-violence and peaceful approach to the world around me. When the war in the countries of former Yugoslavia started, I was in my early 20s and I decided to join Peace Movement in Croatia. That was my way of saying “no” to war, violence and intolerance. At the time I was studying physics engineering, but I decided to leave university and start working in refugee camps in Croatia as a member of the peace movement. I was teaching physics and maths to refugee children from Bosnia and later I started getting involved in other activities to support refugees. As time went by, I discovered my passion for helping other human beings and making a difference in their lives.
When the conflict progressed, my parents decided we had to leave. They belong to two different ethnic groups and they were not safe and neither was I. We made our way to Australia and all I wanted to do was study Social Work and dedicate my life to peace building.
I know I cannot create the big changes the world needs to stop wars, but I can create changes in the lives of individuals around me. As long as I focus on that, on changing one life at a time, I know my life has a purpose. Being able to support refugee communities and individuals in Australia helps me pursue that purpose.
What made you want to work with STARTTS, in particular?
Soon after my arrival to Australia, I met someone who worked at STARTTS. I was keen to continue the work I was doing in Croatia and she encouraged me to apply for a job at STARTTS. This was in 1994 and I started as a trainee Counsellor while completing my Social Work degree. I now work as the Community Services Coordinator and have been in this position since 2000. I have never looked back. My job gives me everything I could ever want for from a job and more. I am able to pursue my passion and ongoing commitment to peace building, I have an opportunity to work with inspiring and resilient people, I have intellectual stimulation and I work alongside amazing colleagues. STARTTS is more than a workplace to me – it is a home and a calling.
Recently I posted ‘A Week in the Life of Refugee Lawyer Sarah Dale’. What kind of work do you in an average week at STARTTS?
There is never an average week at STARTTS! Maybe I could give you a bit of a summary though. In a typical week I could do all of those things:
– Write funding submissions for refugee community organisations to obtain resources to run their own projects. Many refugee community organisations function on minimal or non-existent budgets and yet they run amazing projects – from first-language classes, homework assistance, social groups for the elderly to soccer teams and dance groups.
– Attend many meetings – some of those meetings are internal and help STARTTS improve our services and then there are meetings with refugee community organisations and mainstream services. I enjoy supporting and mentoring refugee community leaders and I love watching them grow.
– Provide training to organisations working with refugees to help them deliver better services and support refugees.
– Support my team members with their work through advice and guidance. I manage a section of STARTTS with four smaller teams and I manage individual staff. This is one of the favourite aspects of my job. I am proud of my team members and their achievements. My team run youth groups, youth camps, sporting and art projects, groups to help people settle in Australia, projects that help refugee communities understand mental health issues and support each other better, projects that help community organisations develop skills they need to do their work, projects that help schools to support refugee students better amongst many other things.
– Attend community functions. Many refugee communities organise functions with music and dance. This is a way of bringing people together and helping them share. I have attended Hazara, South Sudanese, Sierra Leonean, Assyrian, Armenian and many other functions. I feel privileged to have had an opportunity to share in the dance, music and food of cultures other than my own. I also experience joy and awe when I see people who have survived unspeakable atrocities come together and enjoy life.
– I do a lot of writing. Sometimes I write reports to explain to funders how STARTTS has spent their funds. Other times, I write policy submissions to inform the Government about the potential impacts of their policies and legislation on refugees.
– Supervise students – I usually have two Social Work students to supervise. I do this because I am committed to growing a new generation of Social Workers who are able to work with refugees.
I do many other things and I often work evenings and weekends. I don’t mind that at all because, like I said before, my work is more than a job for me. I feel privileged to have found meaning in the work I do every day.
If you don’t mind answering, how were you treated when you came to Australia as a refugee? Does this drive you in any way in the work you do now?
I was fortunate that Australian Government had a special category for refugees from the countries of former Yugoslavia particularly for ethnically mixed families. However, when I arrived in 1993, I did most things myself. There were no caseworkers and my English was too good to be accepted into free English classes. About three days after my arrival I worked out how to enrol into a university in Australia and I found University Admissions Centre. I was too late to apply but I convinced them to take a late application. So….I didn’t really get any help but I also didn’t feel I needed it. Instead, I focused on helping others as soon as I could. I was luckier than most – I spoke English and I am very determined. I wouldn’t say this drives me. My drivers date much further back….to my early teenage years and my experience of war. I also feel I need to say that soon after my arrival, I realised Australia would make a perfect home for me largely because of the diversity I found here and people’s ability to embrace it in all its forms.
Researching a novel is a time-consuming exercise. Why were you so kind to me in answering so many questions and making introductions during the writing of Detention?
I felt that your work was important as it was going to help children and young people learn about refugee experience, bring refugees closer to those who have not met refugees in the past and help create a more compassionate and just society. I also felt that the story of Hazara people needed to be told because not many Australians know who they are or what they have survived.
You guided me toward the inclusion of the town of Leeton in the book. Can you tell me why Leeton has been important in the experience of Hazara people in Australia?
Leeton has provided jobs in the agricultural industry to many Hazaras as have other rural towns. What made Leeton special was their mayor. He befriended many Hazara people and felt personally responsible for ensuring they receive the support and care they needed. He was passionate about this, caring and committed. I appreciated this and I could see how important just and compassionate treatment of refugees was for him. He inspired me as did the whole Leeton community. Many rural and regional communities are very supportive of refugees and have come together to provide jobs and other assistance.
How are Hazara people different to other Afghan people and why has this meant that they have been targeted and persecuted by the Taliban and other groups?
Afghanistan is a very diverse multi-ethnic society. Hazaras have often been the target of human rights abuses by various regimes and groups. Religiously, they are Shi’a which is a different branch of Islam to the one followed by Taliban or ISIS (Da’esh). They are also of Mongolian descent. This has contributed to making them a target for many years (since the 1800s). However, I think it would be better if you asked Hazara people this question. The most important thing to take from this is that Afghanistan is a complex country and all wars have multiple causes. I also feel it is important to say that all Afghans I have met impressed me with their hospitality, honour, art and culture. As for Hazara people, some of the many things I have learned about them are their resilience, adaptability and thirst for education.
Speaking honestly, do you think that stories for young people about the refugee and asylum seeker experience can help in any way? If so, how?
Yes, I think they can. I believe these stories can bring people closer together, make the refugee experience more real to other Australian children and young people and inspire them to work on creating a more peaceful, just and compassionate society. Young people are our future and they are already taking leadership on important issues such as climate change.