“All hands-on deck” to help Afghan refugee arrivals

“All hands-on deck” to help Afghan refugee arrivals
Brendan Rees

For Amelia Tauoqooqo, a Cohealth nurse on the COVID-19 frontline in West Melbourne and the 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 fled the Taliban for Australia. 

“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 on deck” in supporting several hundred Afghan refugees who arrived last month and were currently staying at hotels in Melbourne’s CBD after completing their quarantine period.

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

“We’re hearing lots of stories … there are mums who have been separated from young dependent children, and husbands and wives who have been separated.”

It comes as thousands of Afghan people endured a traumatic evacuation from their home country in the chaotic days after the Taliban stormed the capital Kabul in August.

While interview requests with Afghan refugees were declined due to security reasons, Ms Tauoqooqo spoke of the heartbreaking scenes she had witnessed among the new arrivals with some carrying just a backpack of belongings including 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 as well as creating individualised health plans and liaising with case managers to get the Afghan arrivals 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 Nicole Bartholomeusz said it was vital that the wider community was able to “extend their support, understanding and assistance to the Afghan community”.

Among those stepping up to help has been Wyndham Rotary Club which has 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 a jar of Indian pickles,” community director of Wyndham Rotary Club Phil Harcher said.

A further 150 family-size toiletry packs and a hundred individual toiletry packs donated by Pinchapoo were also distributed by Rotarians.

“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.” •

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