Under-35s reimagine Melbourne: A guiding hand for new migrants

Credit:Matthew Absalom-Wong.

As Melbourne flickers back to life, the pandemic-induced shutdown over the past two years has offered an opportunity to reboot the city and rethink its future. The Age asked five innovative Melburnian under-35s for their best ideas to bring Melbourne back better.

In the latest part of our series, Nafisa Anvar, a community health worker who has specialised in multicultural integration, describes her vision for a Melbourne society that provides one-on-one guidance for new migrants to help them quickly feel a part of the city and all it has to offer.

When the pandemic came along, it highlighted inequalities that many Melburnians would not have known existed. It’s easy to say: “OK, low and middle-income countries have inequalities and health disparities.” Seeing that translated to the Melbourne context was a wake-up call for us.

I started working in contact tracing in Melbourne’s northern suburbs last year, where you see the human side of the pandemic. It’s been probably the worst-affected area of the state during the pandemic. What were once case numbers and statistics become individuals who often don’t know what to do next. I’ve had people say to me, “I don’t have anyone who can do my shopping if I have to isolate. Can you help?” or “I don’t have any friends, I don’t have anyone to turn to.”

The migrant experience can be a really isolating one. Being the multicultural city we are, it’s a really common experience. It takes many years for new migrants to build up a social support system for themselves, as my family and I experienced when we moved here 15 years ago from India, when I was eight.

Australia and Melbourne have a very independent culture, which is great, especially if you’ve grown up here and know how the system works. There’s a huge supply of goodwill and social capital that we could use to help others feel embedded in the city. People are kind-hearted, they want to help, but it’s just not in our culture here at the moment. In India, the culture is very different: everyone relies on each other, you’ve got your neighbours and your go-to people in the community. We could take the best of that and apply it here.

My big idea is to train regular members of the community to act as the link to Melbourne for those acclimatising to life here. The person receiving help might be someone who’s arrived from overseas, for example, or a single mother at home who has nobody, or an elderly person.

Paul Farmer, a healthcare advocate for some of the world’s poorest people and a legend in my books, made popular a system called the “accompaniment model”. Basically, it involves someone who’s trained in the local health and social system accompanying someone going through a difficult time. That means going with them to medical appointments, reminding them to take their treatments, explaining how to find medication and so on.

I’d like to see that expanded to a more general use in Melbourne. It needs to be within the migrant community because they know their culture best. I recognise there are initiatives run by local councils, for example, but they can feel very imposed and bureaucratic. If I had someone from the council helping me navigate Melbourne’s health system, I would be appreciative but would still feel like they didn’t understand me completely.

The training would be simple, teaching those who want to be involved how to navigate important services such as hospitals, the mental health system, social services such as Centrelink and so on. If there are resources to pay them and make it their full-time job, great. Otherwise, I think there would be plenty of volunteers to do something like this. Then if your neighbour has done the training, you know you can go to them for help.

Mental health support is a great example where that personal, individualised touch would make a huge difference. I work in the health system and yet I don’t feel connected to our mental health supports. I don’t necessarily feel that it’s culturally safe enough for me to go and see someone. Yet having someone who’s been in Melbourne for a while, who understands how to connect with a psychologist or a counsellor and could explain how to access them and could accompany me through the early stages, would really change my behaviour.

We’ve had the opportunity to zoom out on Melbourne, particularly in the area of health, thanks to the pandemic. I think we all appreciate more that health isn’t just doctors, nurses and medical-based jobs. It’s a combination of so many factors that influence someone’s wellness: their housing situation, their geographical location, their education. From government down to individuals, I hope we keep our most vulnerable in mind.

With Michael Fowler

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