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Table of Contents
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 225-230

Community partnership with Rohingya refugees in Sydney, Australia: a systemic approach towards healing and recovery

1 MSW, School Liaison Program Team Leader, NSW Service for The Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors, Australia
2 PhD, Research Team Leader, NSW Service for The Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors, Sydney, Australia
3 Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia, Sydney, Australia

Date of Submission22-May-2019
Date of Decision17-Sep-2019
Date of Acceptance24-Sep-2019
Date of Web Publication29-Nov-2019

Correspondence Address:
Shaun Nemorin
NSW Service for the Treatment of Torture and Trauma Survivors, Unit 4, 103 Herring Road, Marsfield, NSW, Australia 2122
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/INTV.INTV_31_19

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This field report highlights some modalities used in resettlement countries, such as Australia, which provide services to vulnerable Rohingya refugees. It encompasses both personal reflections coupled with an overview of the agency-based operational framework and evaluation which underpins the work of Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors and informs our community work towards the recovery of those impacted by war and systemic state-sponsored terrorism. Our aim is to further contribute to discourse about the ways in which service provision is accomplished, ensuring marginalised refugee groups are protected and supported. A background to the current Rohingya refugee context is provided, as well as the biopsychosocial systemic model informing our work. A brief overview of our agency’s various programmes, informed by community consultations and designed to foster healing Rohingya refugees, is presented. We describe our experience in evaluating services for improving efficacy when working with traumatised populations, including recommendations towards community self-determination and asset-based community development for Rohingya refugees.

Keywords: community development programmes, empowerment, evaluation, Rohingya, systemic approach, traumatised refugees

How to cite this article:
Nemorin S, Momartin S, Junaid M. Community partnership with Rohingya refugees in Sydney, Australia: a systemic approach towards healing and recovery. Intervention 2019;17:225-30

How to cite this URL:
Nemorin S, Momartin S, Junaid M. Community partnership with Rohingya refugees in Sydney, Australia: a systemic approach towards healing and recovery. Intervention [serial online] 2019 [cited 2023 Jun 3];17:225-30. Available from: http://www.interventionjournal.org//text.asp?2019/17/2/225/271889

  Introduction Top

Brief Rohingya history

The Rohingya are an ethnic group, the majority of whom are Muslim, and have ancestral roots in Myanmar’s Western State of Rhakine (formerly known as Arakan). The community speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken throughout Myanmar and are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups (Mohajan, 2018). Excluded from those groups deemed indigenous to Myanmar, the right of citizenship was denied to them since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless (Pugh, 2013).

Due to ongoing violence and persecution since 1978, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighbouring countries either by land or boat (Lewa, 2009). The most recent violent events of August 2017 in Rhakine State caused the displacement of over 700,00 Rohingya men, women and children who escaped to Bangladesh in search of safety, many settling on the sloping hillsides of Cox’s Bazar district (Tay et al., 2018). Although these events received commensurate global attention, the mass displacement of Rohingya from Myanmar has been ongoing (Ullah, 2011). Countries with significant Rohingya communities today include Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Pakistan and Indonesia (Tay et al., 2018).

Rohingya in Sydney, Australia

The number of Rohingya currently residing in Sydney is estimated to be 2,500 people. There is no official figure, yet the community is varied in relation to time of arrival, and via which migratory (visa) channel. Smaller figures came via the offshore humanitarian programme, of which Australia was a recipient from those based in UNHCR mandated operations, mostly Bangladesh (Kiragu, Rosi, & Morris, 2011), whilst the majority arrived as asylum seekers by boat in the aftermath of the inter-communal fighting which took place in June 2012. The largest Rohingya community lives in Sydney’s South Western suburb of Lakemba, an area situated within the city’s multicultural western heartland (Chalmers, 2017).

The New South Wales (NSW) Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) as one of Australian leading organisations in refugee mental health has been a recipient of large numbers of refugee communities such as the Rohingya. Our clinic provides psychological treatment and rehabilitation to refugees and asylum seekers who have survived torture, trauma and conflict and we receive approximately 3,500 clients annually in need of assistance. Since 2010, STARTTS has responded to approximately 400 Rohingya referrals in need of individual and family counselling, clinical intervention, group and community development programmes.

Trauma recovery

As counsellors and clinicians, we are aware that recovery from trauma is arduous, especially when chaos and unrest continue. We have observed from our clients that even after leaving a traumatic environment and settling in the safety of Australia, the feelings of threat and instability endure and survivors may feel unsafe in their bodies and in their interactions with others. For any recovery and healing to occur, survivors must feel protected and secure in their setting. Models of trauma recovery emphasise the need for the establishment of safety and stabilisation before any therapy, emotion regulation and recovery can effectively take place (Herman, 1992).

In our clinical work with our clients, we have similarly observed that in the context of cultural and societal pressures, strengthening skills for managing painful memories needs to take place in a setting which is secure and unthreatening, makes recovery in stressful environments such as war zones, refugee camps as well as immigration detention centres complicated. As we have documented previously, these settings are not conducive to healing and do not foster a sustainable therapeutic recovery.

Having the privilege to work alongside survivors of torture and trauma such as the Rohingya refugees at STARTTS gives a unique opportunity to provide continuous therapy, intervention, community development programmes and needs-based support, especially at sensitive times when traumatic news from home country re-traumatises and de-stabilises them. Our aim is to offer pathways towards recovery, which can provide opportunities not only for successful settlement into host countries, but similarly in diaspora community’s ability to support overseas crises.

A trauma-informed biopsychosocial systemic model at STARTTS

Our work focuses on the complex interactions between trauma, resettlement stressors and normal developmental challenges of daily life experienced by vulnerable refugee populations, using the biopsychosocial systemic model. Although not exclusive to STARTTS, we have adopted this model for our purposes and it underpins all of our services (for a more detailed description, please see Aroche & Coello, 1994). Experience has shown us that our clients often experience multiple levels of trauma, which affect the individual at a biological level (physical pain, injury and trauma changing structure of the brain), psychological (depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress) and social level (relationship breakdowns, bonds of trust between individuals, families and communities). Our work has highlighted that trauma not merely impacts the individual but also the connection amongst people, which is the reason we regularly conduct community consultations and routinely use accredited health interpreters and bicultural staff for accuracy and efficiency. Importantly, as we have documented, we recognise that the individual refugee does not exist in a vacuum, but within the context of family, social networks, communities and broader Australian society (Aroche & Coello, 1994).

Whilst traditionally, there has been a tendency to examine settlement complexities from either a clinical or a human rights perspective, our biopsychosocial systemic model considers the effects of, and interactions between, biological, psychological and social factors to provide a more holistic understanding of the impact of torture, trauma and resettlement, allowing us to ensure the provision of effective assessments and interventions (Aroche, Coello & Momartin, 2012a; Aroche, Coello & Momartin, 2012a; b).

  STARTTS Response to Rohingya Community Needs Top

Community consultation

Leaders from within the Rohingya community in Sydney approached STARTTS subsequent to the events of August 2017 in Rakhine State with the goal to seek support for those impacted by the situation overseas. This was what many later described as genocide (OHCHR, 2018). Alongside the leadership of the Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia Association (BRCA), Canterbury City Community Centre, partner NGOs and government agencies within the Lakemba and Canterbury area, a monthly interagency group was established to map out community needs to coordinate support.

With partner organisations involved in the Rohingya interagency, STARTTS facilitated a community consultation in December 2017 involving 150 men, women and children with the aim to gain a deep understanding of how the Rohingya in Sydney conceptualises mental health. Discussions took an asset mapping approach (Mathie & Cunningham, 2003), drawing upon existing resources within the community in Sydney, some of whom had endured squalid conditions in overseas camps (Tan et al., 2018), and others in immigration detention centres in both on and offshore.

During these consultations, STARTTS was exposed to the richness of perception from within the community, seen as a formidable asset to build upon in order to support their brethren, and to uphold the mantra of ‘nothing about us, without us’. Informing our clinical and community development services, this mantra emphasised the importance of intervention with full participation of the members affected (Charlton, 1998), coupled with the intimate understanding of what is best for them, a principle which our agency upholds highly.

To ensure the successful coordination of service provision, and in line with our systemic model, we addressed the interconnected areas of individual, family and various social networks (Aroche et al., 2012a; Aroche et al., 2012b). To achieve this, we formed focus groups, and welcomed and recorded the perceptions, opinions, beliefs and views from leaders, men, women and young people. This helped us to develop a collaborative plan of action for implementation with a focus on partnership and self-determination.

Service provision

Subsequent to this consultation, an outreach clinic within the Lakemba community was established as an important step response to the escalating and ongoing conflict in Myanmar. Since 2017, it has continued to receive referrals and conduct psychotherapy and counselling for individuals and families traumatised as a result of experience pre-arrival to Australia and similarly those impacted by the current events. Many have relatives and are, therefore, caught up in the conflict in Myanmar.

Acknowledging that there were a large number of distressed and potentially disengaging young people in schools, due to the onset of fighting overseas, training was offered to the faculty under the ‘STARTTS School Liaison Program’, designed to better capacitate schools in Sydney to be more inclusive to the needs of refugee learners. Professional learning workshops were delivered to both the local high school and primary school on topics such as understanding the history of the Rohingya and the crisis in Myanmar, trauma presentations and their implication in classroom, practical tools for incidental counselling for non-clinicians.

Some of the discussion and reflection which took place as a result of these sessions was around common presentations of Rohingya students in the classroom. Teachers and clinicians working alongside Rohingya students noted that attributes were often significant politeness and compliance. It is unknown how much can be attributed to parental modelling having never previously had the opportunity to act assertively in one’s country of origin or country/countries of asylum (Chalmers, 2017).

Therapeutic group interventions within local primary and high schools similarly took place as a result of these discussions, whereby young people were able to process the multiple stressors of settlement, traumatic experience of flight from Myanmar, coupled with exposure to the most recent 2017 crisis, which some had difficulties in understanding.

High school males from one narrative therapy group articulated the following towards the conclusion of the group: ‘We might have been born in Indonesia, Malaysia, and perhaps not even born in Rakhine. Yet, there is one thing that connects us in looking at our trees. Our roots are all in Burma and we are Rohingya.’

To build social capital and reforge connection amongst Rohingya students and their peers, STARTTS offered our school-based Capoeira Angola programme, increasingly used as a therapeutic intervention to strengthen, empower and foster the recovery of young survivors of torture and trauma.

Results from ongoing evaluation of our school programmes showed that participating regularly in Capoeira Angola classes as an alternative to traditional therapy helped build resilience, enhanced self-esteem and enriched social capital (Momartin et al., 2019). Pre- and post-evaluation during school terms 2017–2019 indicated that there were improvements in social interaction, higher respect for teachers and peers, physical benefits and improved class performance. Results also indicated improved pro-social behaviour, decreased inattention and truancy, which were attributable to capoeira (Momartin, da Silva Miranda, Aroche, & Coello, 2018).

We documented such expressions as: ‘Now that I have learned Capoeira …I feel like I can achieve anything’; ‘I never really belonged, now I belong to my Capoeira mates…I am part of something important’; ‘I used to get in trouble for missing school, now I want to come to school for group…I can’t let my mates down.’

School groups furthermore highlighted the link between the trauma of young people and that of their parents in the disclosure that much of their psychological malaise mirrored that of their parents at home. Worried adults and community members at the time of the crisis devoured the horrific content from overseas flooding their social media platforms coupled with that on the mainstream news. This was done seemingly unaware of its impact on their children, many of whom were born in exile and found the context difficult to understand.

Acknowledging the necessity to address the impact of trauma from parents, STARTTS facilitated the ‘Families and Cultural Transition (FICT) Programme’ within school settings and at the local community centre. The FICT programme is a ten-week series of workshops facilitated in community language and designed to help newly arrived refugees learn about Australia and settle successfully in their new country. As well as finding out about Australian culture and systems, participants can talk about how their torture and trauma experiences may affect them and their families. They also learn about organisations that can help.

FICT is not only an education programme. It helps refugees make friends and connect with community groups. The programme provides comfort and support to refugees, allowing them to discuss issues they are facing now that may be the result of past experiences in their birth country, their journey to Australia and making the transition to life in Australia.

Evaluation of these groups resulting in increased engagement in community events, communication between school and families and greater interaction between communities (Nemorin, 2017). An example was a ‘friendship picnic’ between Rohingya refugees and Bosnian women with similar needs, trauma background and psychosocial issues on nutrition, exercise, trauma counselling and self-care.

Our evaluation indicated empowerment to be an important outcome of the group, where a STARTTS FICT Rohingya facilitator was nominated for a humanitarian award due to her service amongst women in the community. There were several other positive outcomes following the Rohingya FICT programmes, partnerships with organisations and community groups, encouraging interaction amongst other kin and community. Through mutual disclosure, participants were able to acknowledge that their struggles and fears were not unique, which had a normalising impact.

At the community level, STARTTS partnered with the local football club, the ‘Lakemba Roos’, with teams involving Rohingya young men (Nemorin, 2017). A sport commonly played and popular in Myanmar, it proved to be beneficial for building connections and social capital amongst players, other Rohingya and the broader mainstream Australian community. Several hundred community members would often attend matches on weekends, which in turn, improved networking and exchange of ideas (Bossi, 2016). Some noteworthy comments from the players were ‘We could never play in our country, because we were told we didn’t belong to the land’, and ‘We only played secretly in rice paddies’. This was a shift from a previous sense of helplessness to empowerment through newfound opportunity into mainstream institutions. The young people thrived.

Asset and strength-based approach to combat despair

The concept of refugee evokes a level of commiseration forming a barrier to better understanding the strengths refugees bring to the settlement countries as well as their socio-economic contribution. By defining Rohingya refugees by their strengths and assets, however, represents a future-oriented modality. Our work through programmes such as Capoeira, sporting, narrative and family group work focus on empowerment, giving community members strength to express their opinion, participate in decision-making and planning. Our pre- and post-evaluation reports clearly state the difference in resilience and self-confidence that they acquire upon completion of such programmes.

Our recent experience has similarly shown us that refugees bring with them a wide range of skills and strengths which should be celebrated, utilised and form the basis of the settlement approach. Rohingya refugees resettled in Australia are furthermore concerned about ways their community can be supported overseas within the current crisis and want the opportunity to contribute their ideas.

As an additional step at the community systems level, some effort has been placed on linking social capital (Bartolomei, Pittaway, & Ward, 2013) and advocacy, recognising the importance to carry out capacity building and leadership training programmes for those who are willing to serve their own communities in Australia and overseas. As an example, the Refugee Council of Australia and STARTTS helped form the Refugee Communities Advocacy Network (RCAN), initiated on a foundation of strength and people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds and replace refugee vulnerabilities with redefining refugee strengths (Dhungel, 2017).

The network provides a platform where the leadership of vulnerable communities, including the Rohingya, engages collaboratively with other key refugee community stakeholders. The network builds social capital by increasing opportunities for Rohingya refugees to strengthen bonds and with other refugee groups upon the settlement journey, building links and bridges for pathways to longer term community revitalisation, build their capacity to identify and address local community needs, facilitate partnerships that result in better services and service integration, encourage volunteering, build social cohesion, mutually develop strategies to increase awareness of access to services and support organisations in the delivery of services to individuals and organisations.

As ties become severed during refugee flight, networks disrupted and with accumulation of trauma, working collaboratively and driving community engagement enhances the outcomes and successes of recovery programmes as well as strengthening their role by working more collaboratively with key stakeholders, including the new arrivals and their respective community organisations.

  Conclusion Top

Through partnership and formal consultation, community members contribute towards both clinical and community development initiatives needed to address individuals’ biological, psychological and social functioning. The ultimate goal is to enhance settlement outcomes and to live fruitful lives in Australia, not beset by traumatic pre-arrival challenges through persecution in Rakhine State, Myanmar or deprivation in flight towards Bangladesh, Malaysia and elsewhere.

An objective is to have Rohingya people successfully contribute in their new home of Australia, whilst also contributing as experts through their ability to cope through adversity and the resilience built along that journey. They are a valuable resource in advocating for those trapped in deplorable conditions overseas, and to inform those intervening as to what successful outcomes towards healing may look like. Promoting the existing resilience and perseverance of the Rohingya refugees would be beneficial and constructive for building a stronger community. In relation to service delivery, advocacy which includes refugee representatives and participation is more credible and efficient. It is important for policy makers, intervening NGOs and the international community also to meaningfully include Rohingya refugees themselves in the refugee policy debate and in service provision rather than rely on their own expertise. Using a bio psychosocial systemic approach towards recovery, refugees are able to enjoy an environment conducive to healing, one that can ensure safety, ongoing support and the provision of legal rights.

Working in partnership with the Rohingya community to support survivors of torture and trauma heal from the past presents a unique opportunity. Few other contexts in which the Rohingya currently reside can attest to similar opportunities, and today some enjoy what has always been elusive citizenship, a place to genuinely call home.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


  References Top

Aroche J., Coello M. (1994). Towards a systematic approach for the treatment and rehabilitation of torture and trauma survivors: The experience of STARTTS in Australia. Presented at the 4th International Conference of Centres, Institutions and Individuals Concerned with Victims of Organized Violence: [Caring for and Empowering Victims of Human Rights Violations], DAP, Tagaytay City, Philippines, December 5–9.  Back to cited text no. 1
Aroche J., Coello M., Momartin S. (2012a). Chapter 10: Culture, family & social networks: Ethno-cultural influences on recovery, reconnection and resettlement of refugee families. In: Segal U., Elliot D. (Eds.), Refugees Worldwide, Volume 3. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers Inc.  Back to cited text no. 2
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Bossi D. (2016). How football gave Rohingyan refugees hope and purpose. Sydney Morning Herald. Available at https://www.smh.com.au/sport/soccer/how-football-gave-rohingyan-refugees-hope-and-purpose-20160729-gqgxz4.html  Back to cited text no. 5
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