Shefali Juneja Lakhina has seen first hand that people who flee persecution are most of all, seeking safety.
That’s why the University of Wollongong PhD student is working with refugee families across the Illawarra to understand how they learn about and prepare for natural hazards, such as bushfires, storms and flash flooding.
‘’Based on my family’s experiences of seeking refuge in post-partition India in the late 1940s, and my own experiences of living in five countries over the past 14 years, I have always been struck by how migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees have been generally left out of disaster resilience thinking, policy and practice,’’ she said.
‘’This issue is important to address because people who flee persecution are most of all, seeking safety.
‘’But, to what extent do Refugee Welcome Zones - cities and regions, fulfill this critical need for safety?
Of the 26 people I spoke with, 10 reported being caught unawares by bushfire, heavy rain, flash flooding, hail, lightning and strong winds in their first year of living in the Illawarra.Shefali Juneja Lakhina
‘’And, how better can this need for safety be addressed by engaging the knowledge and capacities of refugees in local disaster resilience initiatives?’’
Since 2005 Ms Lakhina has contributed to a range of United Nations policies and programs for disaster risk management in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and South East Europe.
Funded by the Australian Research Council and a NSW Office of Emergency Management grant, her latest doctoral research initiative, Resilient Together, aims to work with people from diverse refugee backgrounds to create a disaster-resilient Illawarra.
More than two-thirds of the people Ms Lakhina spoke to experienced at least one, and in some case multiple, natural hazards before coming to Australia.
‘’Of the 26 people I spoke with, 10 reported being caught unawares by bushfire, heavy rain, flash flooding, hail, lightning and strong winds in their first year of living in the Illawarra,’’ she said.
‘’They felt unprepared, in some cases traumatised, and a lot of them are still unsure of what they should do to keep safe in these scenarios, other than what they have always done, which is to depend on their family, friends, neighbours and community for life-saving information and support.’’
But these new community members will also have much to contribute to our learning about resilience in the face of emergencies and disasters in the Illawarra.Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery
Ms Lakhina, who is pursuing her PhD at UOW’s Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research, added refugees have a lot to contribute to creating a disaster-resilient Illawarra.
‘’Something that has really stayed with me is one participant’s comment about feeling empowered by this research process, because for a change, she was being asked about her experiences and perspectives, not being told what to do,’’ she said.
The UOW researcher is working with Wollongong, Shellharbour, and Kiama councils, NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW State Emergency Service, Australian Red Cross, Illawarra Multicultural Services, Strategic Community Assistance for Refugee Families (SCARF) as well as representatives from the Illawarra’s diverse refugee communities, including participants from Burma, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Congo and Liberia.
Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery said the council will continue to develop the project’s recommendations in partnership with community representatives and local institutions.
‘’We have many new refugee families from communities all over the world,’’ Cr Bradbery said.
‘’These families can feel isolated and at a loss as to what they can do if there is an emergency, such as a flood, bushfire, or storm event.
‘’But these new community members will also have much to contribute to our learning about resilience in the face of emergencies and disasters in the Illawarra.’’