“All hands-on deck” to help new arrival of Afghan refugees

By Brendan Rees

For Amelia Tauoqooqo, a Cohealth nurse on the COVID-19 frontline in Melbourne’s CBD, the call to assist Afghan refugees has been heartbreaking but concedes “you’ll never find a more pragmatic, resilient group of people”. 

“I’ve been working in the migration health space for 10 years and I definitely think this is probably the worst I’ve seen in terms of immediate separation of immediate family members,” she said of the hundreds of Afghans who recently arrived in Melbourne after enduring a traumatic evacuation from their home country in the chaotic days after the Taliban stormed the capital Kabul in August.

“All the scenes you saw on the news four or five weeks ago were a fairly accurate depiction of what we’re hearing firsthand.”

Ms Tauoqooqo, who is part Cohealth’s refugee and asylum seeker health team, which has been working in partnership with other agencies, said it had been “all hands of deck” in supporting 700 Afghan refugees who arrived last month in Melbourne and were currently staying at hotels in the CBD.

“Everything has been really difficult the last couple of weeks, getting their immediate needs met because the services were quite overwhelmed,” she said. 

“We’re hearing lots of stories … they are mums you have been separated from young dependent children and husbands and wives that have been separated.”

While interview requests with Afghan refugees were declined due to security reasons, Ms Tauoqooqo said some of the Afghans had arrived with just the “clothes on their backs” as well as a backpack with few items such as their mobile phones and birth certificates.  

“People are arriving really cold … they weren’t prepared for Melbourne weather,” she said.

“It’s obviously devastating but you’ll never find a more pragmatic, resilient group of people who are seeking asylum,” she said, adding “they’re excited to get on with it and get jobs and start their lives”.

In addition to vaccinations at pop up clinics at the Melbourne Multicultural Hub and in West Melbourne, Ms Tauoqooqo and her team have been providing telehealth consultations and creating individualised health plans and working with case managers to get the Afghan refugees the care they need.  

“A lot of the work has been around trying to coordinate build relationships with local providers who are happy to see this group without Medicare,” she said. 

As the needs of the Afghanistan refugees become more apparent, Cohealth chief executive of Nicole Bartholomeusz said it was vital that the wider community was able to “extend its support, understanding and assistance to the Afghan community”.

Among those stepping up to help has been Wyndham Rotary Club which teamed up with community organisations to distribute meals, toys, clothing, and other essentials for the Afghan refugees.  

“We provided to Wyndham Park Community about 180 packs of Indian style food which was five kilos of rice, one kilo of lentils and another kilo of broad beans and dried peas plus a few packets of biscuits, and jar of Indian pickles,” Phil Harcher, community director of Wyndham Rotary Club, said. 

A further 150 family size toiletry packs and a hundred individual toiletry packs donated by Pinchapoo were also handed out. 

“We just do it because we know we can make a difference,” Mr Harcher said. 

“We don’t need accolades, the accolades we get are by knowing we’ve done a good job.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said the initial intake of 3000 Afghan citizens would be drawn from this year’s humanitarian program, which is set at 13,750 places.

“The government anticipates this initial allocation will increase further over the course of 2021-22,” the spokesperson said. 

“While the arrivals and settlement of the emergency evacuation in Afghanistan is progressing, the welfare, privacy, safety and security of this cohort is our priority.” •

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