Multicultural communities' strengths against emergencies

Flipping the script: When cultural groups are affected, including them draws better outcomes

Nearly half of all Australians now have a parent born overseas. According to the most recent census, 28% of Australians were born overseas themselves.

Because the climate is warming, Australia can expect more, and different, natural disasters.

And as Australia becomes home to more culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) people, it’s becoming ever more crucial that we think about how these people intersect with emergencies and disasters.

There are the bluntly practical questions – who can speak English? Who was taught to swim? – and the deeply complex – how can you get widespread vaccine uptake, or bushfire preparedness, across cultural barriers?

None of these questions are new. Emergency services have been publishing and updating guidelines for emergency management with CALD communities for several decades. There are guidelines now written to explain how emergency agencies should engage CALD communities, for instance: “Warnings should be disseminated via multiple channels, tailored to suit each channel, and consider accessibility for diverse audiences.”

But still, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown new light on the problems. If authorities don’t have input from members of these communities, they will inevitably make mistakes – sometimes with dangerous consequences.

As Australia becomes home to more culturally and linguistically diverse people, it’s becoming ever more crucial that we think about how these people intersect with emergencies.

A recent, glaring, example is the Victorian government’s lockdown of the North Melbourne and Flemington public housing towers in July 2020 to try and staunch a COVID-19 outbreak. The sudden and strict lockdown, on residents from many different cultural backgrounds, was later found by the ombudsman to breach human rights.

Nowhere else in the country has been placed under restrictions this harsh without at least a few hours warning.

Melbourne, with its total 262 days of lockdown, has certainly seen the darkest side of the pandemic in Australia. While the lockdowns’ effect on COVID were immediate, we are only now beginning to untangle their impact on mental health.

Victoria has emerged from this long, drawn-out emergency, with a new way to approach disasters with diverse communities.

Called the Multicultural Emergency Management Partnership (MEMP), the model seeks to alter the relationship between emergency management and multicultural communities.

Shifting your thinking

The MEMP was recently discussed at a panel hosted by the 2022 Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Council (AFAC) conference in Adelaide.

“It’s a unique hybrid model, bringing the main emergency management agencies and community leaders and connectors together,” said Veema Mooniapah, a community influencer and MEMP member, at the panel.

“This is the first time there is a genuine dialogue between multicultural communities and emergency management services.”

Central to the model’s working is the equal partnership between emergency management and multicultural communities.

“When COVID hit, most of the strengths that the government really leveraged on were the community – we had community leaders, we had community connectors,” said Thuch Ajak, co-founder and Project Manager of United Africa Farm, and co-chair of MEMP.

Those leaders and connectors are often the best way to share information in a CALD community – whether that’s why and how to get vaccinated, or what to do in a flood.

“Community is often seen as something to be fixed – they need this, they need this,” said Ajak.

“How about you reverse it? How about: you need something yourself, and we sit together? Because I know my community. I know who doesn’t speak English. Myself, I speak four languages, I can easily reach out to other community members, I can relate information that you want.”

Five people sit on stage at a conference
The panel Collaborating for Resilience: Multicultural Communities and Emergency Management, at the 2022 AFAC conference. Left to right: Thuch Ajak, Veema Mooniapah, Selba-Gondoza Luka, Jiembra Shiels, and panel moderator Amanda Leck, deputy commissioner at Emergency Management Victoria. Credit: Pixel Collective | AFAC22

This sentiment was reflected across the panel.

“Who really has those challenges: communities or organisations?” said Mooniapah, adding that there needed to be a shift in thinking around getting messages to multicultural communities.

“Don’t look at a black person and think they can’t understand,” summarised Selba-Gondoza Luka, mental health clinician and CEO of Afri-Aus Care.

“We are going to surprise you – just work with us.”

Case in point: Afri-Aus Care

Selba-Gondoza has plenty of evidence to support this.

“I am considered to be an educated woman. I have a postgraduate diploma in clinical mental health,” she tells Cosmos.

“But not only that, a person with lived experience. I was a psychiatric patient. I went through a lot.”

Selba-Gondoza came to Australia from Malawi with her (now ex-) husband and young daughter. But in 2001, she was diagnosed with postnatal depression following the death of a premature child, at just seven months old. The family was plunged into crisis.

“I lost the baby, I lost income, I lost the house, in three months,” says Selba-Gondoza.

“Depression is a silent killer in our community – no one wants to talk about it. It’s a taboo subject.”

Selba-Gondoza Luka

The catastrophes triggered severe depression, and Selba-Gondoza ended up in hospital, grappling with an unequipped mental health system.

“Depression is a silent killer in our community – no one wants to talk about it. It’s a taboo subject,” she says.

Selba-Gondoza says she was a victim of a situational crisis.

“In 2002, my psychiatrist said I’d never function,” she says.

Her ex-husband was told it was better if he could take her back to Africa.

The psychiatrist’s judgement proved to be wrong – or perhaps premature. Many difficult years followed, but with the support of other women, Selba-Gondoza did function again – and joined the psychiatrists on the other side of the room.

“I went to university to study nursing. I did three years – how I passed, I don’t know. Then, after that, I majored in mental health – the same disease that nearly killed me.”

Selba-Gondoza studied a postgraduate diploma in mental health at the University of Melbourne. Now, she says she has become the opposite of what the psychiatrist said she’d be.

“It was a shock to the women we care for – but we use the UBUNTU guidelines and principles. I am, because we are all equal.”

Selba-Gondoza Luka

“Soon after I graduated as a clinician, I started working in jails. I have worked at all the psychiatric wards in Melbourne.

“What I saw was isolated African people suffering severely, some killing themselves. But their history was like my own history.”

Ultimately, the work spurred Selba-Gondoza to found Afri-Aus Care, which provides members of CALD communities with culturally appropriate mental health support.

The focus is primarily on young people, but they also work with women: families, and particularly mothers who need support as well if their youth are to improve.

“I went after women who were like me, started supporting them. Mental health assessments, sending those who needed medication or psychological support to the GP, giving them jobs.”

Crucially, all of this was in place before the pandemic began. When COVID hit, Selba-Gondoza’s organisation was well-placed to respond.

“It was a shock to the women we care for – but we use the UBUNTU guidelines and principles. I am, because we are all equal.”

Ubuntu is as an African philosophy that centres around connections and strong relationships between individuals and families.

“The only things that separates us is luck or the availability of opportunities,” says Selba-Gondoza.

“If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”

Selba-Gondoza Luka

Afri-Aus Care already had a network in place to share information and support. It bought food for isolated people with grants from the Victorian government, and mobilised volunteers to keep groups connected.

Critically, they helped to share information on the pandemic, restrictions, and vaccines.

“The Department of Family Affairs and Housing also gave us grants to translate the information sessions in these mothers’ own languages. So we created videos, we created audio messages, and the messages were going through.”

The biggest difficulties happened prior to the pandemic – making the pandemic, when it hit, manageable.

“Among African people, mental health is a taboo,” she says.

“Because of the UBUNTU practice, I talk about my story. And I encourage them to get treatment. If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”

Where to from here?

“The MEMP changed the conversation,” said Jiembra Shiels, from the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, at the AFAC panel.

“It turned it from a ‘multicultural communities are these vulnerable, fragile people out there we need to save from emergencies’, to realising that multicultural communities actually bring a whole heap of strengths and a whole heap of resources into picture. We saw that in Victoria, during COVID.”

“It’s not a talk fest,” added Mooniapah.

“It’s not talking about having dialogues, and then doing nothing. We have key smart actions, and a roadmap for how to achieve those.”

Room full of people watching five panellists on stage
The AFAC panel. Credit: Pixel Collective | AFAC22

Selba-Gondoza says that evidence-based researchers, and universities, understand this well, citing Afri-Aus Care’s work with Melbourne University as particularly good examples.

“It’s not ticking boxes, or positive success stories. It’s real stories, real people. The researchers meet African people at the grassroot level and learn what is happening.

“Strength-based and bottom-up approaches are what is needed in order for stakeholders to learn how to support our communities well and how the community can contribute positively to Australian society.”

“Who really has those challenges: communities or organisations?”

Veema Mooniapah

She adds that grassroots community members would like to know more about how they can volunteer as parts of emergency management teams.

COVID has been difficult for everyone. But communities with strong connections found it less difficult to manage.

“There is a power and control imbalance in emergency management,” said Mooniapah.

“If you create that cultural safety, create that space and bring the communities into that safe space, they will deliver.”

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