Working with refugees to build disaster resilience

Source(s): University of Wollongong

Building a life in a new country is daunting as it is, but when faced with a natural disaster, it can also be dangerous.

University of Wollongong PhD student Shefali Juneja Lakhina is working with refugee families across the Illawarra to understand how they learn about and prepare for natural hazards, such as bushfires, storms and flash flooding. 

“It is important for people to feel safe as they arrive in Australia, especially for those who come from conditions of extreme risk with the hope of finding safe refuge,” said Shefali, who is pursuing her PhD at UOW’s Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research.

Funded by the Australian Research Council and a NSW Office of Emergency Management grant, Shefali’s doctoral research initiative, Resilient Together, aims to work with people from diverse refugee backgrounds to create a disaster-resilient Illawarra.

The interviews have revealed the refugees’ past experiences with a range of natural hazards, and their exposure to natural hazards after arriving in Australia.

“Of the 26 people I spoke with, 10 reported being caught unawares by bushfire, heavy rain, flash flooding, hail, lightning and strong winds in their first year of living in the Illawarra,” Shefali said.

“They felt unprepared, in some cases traumatised, and a lot of them are still unsure of what they should do to keep safe in these scenarios, other than what they have always done, which is to depend on their family, friends, neighbours and community for life-saving information and support.”

More than two-thirds of the people she spoke to experienced at least one, and in some case multiple, natural hazards before coming to Australia. These past experiences hold the key to revealing how emerging communities engage in disaster resilience, by relying on family, friends, neighbours, places of worship, multicultural services and community-led organisations that help new arrivals to settle in.

Shefali said there are three overlooked areas that can be critical to ensuring refugee communities are aware of and prepared for the risks that come with living in Australia: timely access to hazard and risk information; access to safe and secure housing; and culturally appropriate support to prepare their home and families for daily and seasonal hazards.

Representatives from Illawarra councils, emergency services, and community organisations, as well as members of the region’s refugee community are working with the UOW researcher to engage refugee households in the Illawarra and pinpoint how to build disaster resilience.

Shefali is working with Wollongong, Shellharbour, and Kiama councils, NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW State Emergency Service, Australian Red Cross, Illawarra Multicultural Services, Strategic Community Assistance for Refugee Families (SCARF) as well as representatives from the Illawarra’s diverse refugee communities, including participants from Burma, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Congo and Liberia.

Wollongong City Council has been a critical partner for the project’s successful implementation and will continue to develop the project’s recommendations in partnership with community representatives and local institutions.

“Council is proud to partner with the University of Wollongong’s Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research,” Wollongong City Lord Mayor Councillor Gordon Bradbery OAM said.

“We have many new refugee families from communities all over the world. These families can feel isolated and at a loss as to what they can do if there is an emergency, such as a flood, bushfire, or storm event. But these new community members will also have much to contribute to our learning about resilience in the face of emergencies and disasters in the Illawarra.”

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