A refugee giving back

Melika Yassin Sheikh-Eldin is one of Australia’s great untold migrant success stories.

After fleeing war from Eritrea in the late 1970s, she has completed a doctorate, set up refugee-centred social enterprises and helped thousands of new arrivals to Australia settle successfully.

She has been instrumental in developing world-leading settlement programs and represented AMES Australia and Australia at United Nations forums.

Melika was a key player in the successful establishment of a Burmese Karen community at Nhill, in western Victoria.

She also played a major role in an initiative to engage local Karen women as volunteers in the gardens at Werribee Park – which has gone a long way to alleviating issues of isolation and mental health and wellbeing among the large Karen community in Werribee. The community garden model is now being adopted by other organisations.

As part of the Horn of Africa Communities Network, Melika also helped a large South Sudanese community settle in Warrnambool and other groups settle in Swan Hill, Mildura and Shepparton.

Since 2007, she has sat on the board of the Refugee Council of Australia and has been a ‘Refugee Voice’ at the annual UNHCR consultations in Geneva – she will be attending this meeting again in June this year.

Currently, Melika is AMES Australia’s Manager of Settlement Support Services.

She found it difficult to find work in her chosen area of Marine Biology but along her journey as a refugee she found a passion for work in the humanitarian sector. Melika has been working for AMES Australia since 2001.

“Originally, I came from Eritrea. I was brought up in a middle class family in an agricultural town,” Melika said.

“I had completed first year university studies in medicine when the war came and that changed everything for me,” she said.

Full scale war came to Eritrea when the government in Ethiopia unilaterally revoked Eritrea’s autonomous status.

The war went on for 33 years until 1991 when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), having defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, took control of the country.

In April 1993, in a referendum supported by Ethiopia, the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favour of independence. Formal international recognition of an independent and sovereign Eritrea followed later the same year.

But Eritrea’s militarist government and continuing dispute with Ethiopia has spawned allegations of human rights violations and fuelled a continuing refugee exodus.

“Obviously we were aware of the revolution which was mostly in the countryside – but when the war spread all over Eritrea we were forced to flee,” Melika said.

“We had friends and relatives who were killed during the conflict,” she said. “I spent two years in a refugee camp in Sudan helping as a volunteer – I worked with UNHCR, Human Appeal International, Save the Children and other aid organisations. I was given a scholarship and I wanted to study medicine – but that was open only to local Sudanese – so my second choice was Zoology specializing in Fisheries and I graduated from Khartoum University with first degree honours.”

Unable to work, Melika volunteered for national service with the Eritrean revolutionary forces.

“After that I was contacted by the UNHCR who asked me to teach in one of its secondary schools in eastern Sudan – so I did that for two years,” she said.

Offered the opportunity to do some post graduate study, Melika went to Egypt completed a Master’s Degree in Marine Biology studying Red Sea native fish.

“At the time there was an influx of refugees into Egypt from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and other places in the region so I volunteered for St Andrews Church Welfare Centre as an interpreter while I was doing my Master’s Degree,” she said.

With the political situations in Eritrea and most of the rest of the Horn of Africa, Melika applied to the UN for resettlement and was accepted with her three sons into Australia in 1992. Her husband remained in Eritrea with the revolution and joined them in Australia in 1995.

“I came to Melbourne and applied to do a PhD – which had always been my dream. I achieved that by completing my doctorate on native Australian fresh water fish at Deakin University, Warrnambool Campus and publishing four papers on endangered species,” she said.

Like many refugees and new arrivals to Australia, Melika struggled to find work in her chosen field.

“As a refugee, I had always realised the importance of networking. Like in many places around the world, it’s not what you know but who you know which matters,” she said.

“So my first job in Australia was at AMES Australia, working two days a week at the Footscray facility helping newly-arrived young people to find educational courses that matched their needs and helping to fill out forms and so on.”

Melika then moved into full time work with AMES Australia's newly established Community Division and she was instrumental in setting up ground breaking refugee social enterprises, such as Sorghum Sisters Catering, which still operates out of a Carlton primary school.

In 2005 AMES Australia launched its Settlement Division which would go on to help thousands of refugees and asylum seekers settle in Victoria.

“I worked as a Senior Coordinator in Settlement and that has led on to all sorts of other things.

Melika is responsible for AMES Australia’s Community Guides program, which helps new arrivals settle into their new community, and the Community Engagement program, which seeks to link people to their local communities and mitigate issues such as isolation and mental health and wellbeing.

It was under this role that Melika played a part in establishing the Karen community at Nhill, in western Victoria, and also in engaging the Karen community at Wyndham to volunteer in the gardens at Werribee Park.

The program to settle Karen-Burmese refugees at Nhill has emerged as a model not only for refugee settlement but also for the revival of struggling rural towns.

About 150 Karen refugees have been settled in Nhill, attracted by jobs being offered by local poultry producer Luv-a-Duck.

Local leaders say the arrival of the Karen has breathed new life into the town, bringing economic benefits and enriching its cultural life.

At Werribee and in partnership with Parks Victoria, a similar program has meant the regeneration of an historic garden and, in a remarkable example of cultural cross-pollination, the blossoming of local refugee communities.

What started as a call for volunteers to help rebuild the gardens at Werribee turned into a therapy session for dislocated and isolated refugee families.

“What started out as community project to rebuild the old kitchen garden here at Werribee Park has turned out to be an incredibly successful social experiment and a model for other community engagement projects,” Melika said.

“In partnership with Parks Victoria, we began the program as a way of engaging the older isolated women from the local Karen community by offering them the opportunity to come to the garden. But now the young people and men are coming – the whole community have embraced it and we have some young men studying horticulture as trainees with Parks Victoria,” she said.

The Park’s chief ranger James Brincat says:“Everyone involved in this is blown away by what we’ve achieved and the inspirational outcomes that have come from putting some seeds in the ground and seeing what happens – both literally and figuratively. A lot of the credit should go to Melika.”

Melika says her work has become a passion. “I have been honoured to represent AMES Australia internationally as a world-leading settlement organisation,” she said.

Melika has travelled overseas, including to Sweden, New Zealand and Japan, to help other organisations establish community guide programs along the AMES Australia model. The programs recruit former refugees with first language skills, and who have experienced displacement and resettlement, as guides to help newly arrived people navigate a new society and help with the practical necessities of life.

“I’m passionate about identifying needs and developing programs to help the resettlement of refugees,” Melika said.

“With the Nhill project, AMES Australia first consulted with the Communities to see if such project addresses their needs -we planned the whole project and made sure there was direct community engagement and involvement – that was a key to its success.

“I’m also big on partnerships -in my language we say: ‘one hand cannot clap but many hands clap loudly’,” Melika said.



Related stories

Stay tuned for more migrant stories: