From West Africa to Wollongong

Published by MAXSolutions on June 19, 2023
From West Africa to Wollongong

What does it mean to be free? 
To live without the fear of war, to have your basic human rights upheld, to live in equality and without the fear of persecution are just some of the examples of what freedom can entail. 
Everyday millions of people across the world embark on dangerous journeys for the sole purpose of finding safety and freedom. 

From Australia to nations across the globe, settling into a new environment after experiencing the perils of a refugee’s journey can also provide the opportunity to live, to love and to dream.   

This week, Refugee Week (18 - 24 June), reminds us that regardless of our differences, we all share a common humanity.

Many of us at MAX have our own stories of and family connections to seeking refuge in Australia, including Job Coach Jennifer Atty.

She shares her experience of what it is like to be a refugee.

Can you tell us about your background and your journey to Australia?

I am from Togo, West Africa. When I was three years old, my Mum and I joined my Dad in a refugee camp in Bénin.

Bénin is a neighbouring country to Togo. My Dad left first to seek asylum and to make sure it was safe for us to make the journey to meet him in the camp. 

Countries like Norway, USA and France sent delegates to the camp to give people the opportunity to resettle in their country.

After many years in the camp, a delegation from Australia came with the opportunity to resettle in Australia.  

I think we were one of the first people who were picked to come to Australia together with other families from Chad and Congo. 


What did it mean for you to come to Australia?

Leaving the camp was a hope we all shared as refugees, regardless of where we were from.

The two refugee camps I lived in Bénin housed people from different countries in Africa - some from Congo, Nigeria, Chad and so on.

We all wanted a better life - somewhere in the world other than the camp we could call home, not having to always look over our shoulders and to have something tangible or stable for ourselves.

The first time I heard about Australia, I had no idea where in the world it was and what language they even spoke there, but I wanted to go and I was willing to learn about the new way of life there.


What was it like when you first arrived?

I was 18 years old when we came to Australia. From not knowing anything about Australia to finally landing in the country was a mix of emotions.

When our case worker picked us up from the airport and began to drive to Wollongong, it was such a long drive. As we slowly drove away from the city, we began to see trees, lot of trees, then bush and no one else on the road.

It was a bit frightening, yet I was curious and at the same time I had a feeling of safety, regardless of what the destination was going to be like. 

The taste of the food was the first reality check I had in Australia. Wow! We were given Woolworths fresh pressed orange juice and I hated the taste. It took me a couple of years before I finally tried it again and I like it.


What was it like learning English?

In terms of my English level, I could only say yes or no when I first arrived. Hearing the Australian accent was a bit scary.

It still is but not so as much as it was at the beginning. What helped me the most was my passion to write and describe emotions with simple words.

I kept telling myself learning English is hard enough so using big words makes me confused very easily and that desire to describe what it’s like to be a refugee helped me to start to find appropriate words for things.

In poetry for example, I found my voice and my ability to express myself and this flowed into using words in my everyday interactions. When I come across a new word in English I try to make a sentence with it.

If I can’t, I relate the word to something I might have gone through or currently feel and then I will write about it.  

I save new words in notes on my phone and around the house until I am used to that word.

I learned to be patient with myself and enjoy the ride because it is very bumpy, especially when I want to say something but I can’t express myself.

I speak French so sometimes I find it easier to translate words from French to English. 

For those still learning English, my advice is to use simple expressions and find your passion in English which can be in self-expression, description or writing.


Do you have any advice for people about how they can help refugees as they settle into life in Australia?

First, I would like to thank all those who are working to help refugees across the globe but most especially in Australia.

From organisations to anyone who tried to understand what life could have been like and how it can be to settle into a new land, thank you for everything.

Unlike other countries, Australia is one of those countries who sympathises with refugees’ journeys.

Australia puts a lot of resources and services into assisting them in their journey to safety and fosters feelings of belonging to Australian society.  

To those who are or will work with refugees, keep up the great work.

From my own experience and after watching people who are close to me, including my parents and those who I came to know as refugees too, I will say, helping a refugee to settle in Australia is not just six months’ work and then goodbye, you can fend for yourself.

Each refugee has a different way of processing things, beginning with their healing process.  

So be patient with them and support them if you can so that they can find their way in a new land. 

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