Resettlement as Rebirth: How Effective Are the Midwives?


  • Neroli Colvin Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney



refugees, resettlement, regional communities

How to Cite

Colvin, N. (2013). Resettlement as Rebirth: How Effective Are the Midwives?. M/C Journal, 16(5).
Vol. 16 No. 5 (2013): resilient
Published 2013-08-21

“Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them [...] life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” (Garcia Marquez 165)


The refugee experience is, at heart, one of rebirth. Just as becoming a new, distinctive being—biological birth—necessarily involves the physical separation of mother and infant, so becoming a refugee entails separation from a "mother country." This mother country may or may not be a recognised nation state; the point is that the refugee transitions from physical connectedness to separation, from insider to outsider, from endemic to alien. Like babies, refugees may have little control over the timing and conditions of their expulsion. Successful resettlement requires not one rebirth but multiple rebirths—resettlement is a lifelong process (Layton)—which in turn require hope, imagination, and energy. In rebirthing themselves over and over again, people who have fled or been forced from their homelands become both mother and child.

They do not go through this rebirthing alone. A range of agencies and individuals may be there to assist, including immigration officials, settlement services, schools and teachers, employment agencies and employers, English as a Second Language (ESL) resources and instructors, health-care providers, counsellors, diasporic networks, neighbours, church groups, and other community organisations. The nature, intensity, and duration of these “midwives’” interventions—and when they occur and in what combinations—vary hugely from place to place and from person to person, but there is clear evidence that post-migration experiences have a significant impact on settlement outcomes (Fozdar and Hartley). This paper draws on qualitative research I did in 2012 in a regional town in New South Wales to illuminate some of the ways in which settlement aides ease, or impede, refugees’ rebirth as fully recognised and participating Australians. I begin by considering what it means to be resilient before tracing some of the dimensions of the resettlement process. In doing so, I draw on data from interviews and focus groups with former refugees, service providers, and other residents of the town I shall call Easthaven.

First, though, a word about Easthaven. As is the case in many rural and regional parts of Australia, Easthaven’s population is strongly dominated by Anglo Celtic and Saxon ancestries: 2011 Census data show that more than 80 per cent of residents were born in Australia (compared with a national figure of 69.8 per cent) and about 90 per cent speak only English at home (76.8 per cent). Almost twice as many people identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander as the national figure of 2.5 per cent (Australian Bureau of Statistics).

For several years Easthaven has been an official “Refugee Welcome Zone”, welcoming hundreds of refugees from diverse countries in Africa and the Middle East as well as from Myanmar. This reflects the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s drive to settle a fifth of Australia’s 13,750 humanitarian entrants a year directly in regional areas. In Easthaven’s schools—which is where I focused my research—almost all of the ESL students are from refugee backgrounds.

Defining Resilience

Much of the research on human resilience is grounded in psychology, with a capacity to “bounce back” from adverse experiences cited in many definitions of resilience (e.g. American Psychological Association). Bouncing back implies a relatively quick process, and a return to a state or form similar to that which existed before the encounter with adversity. Yet resilience often requires sustained effort and significant changes in identity. As Jerome Rugaruza, a former UNHCR refugee, says of his journey from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Australia:

All the steps begin in the burning village: you run with nothing to eat, no clothes. You just go. Then you get to the refugee camp […] You have a little bread and you thank god you are safe. Then after a few years in the camp, you think about a future for your children. You arrive in Australia and then you learn a new language, you learn to drive. There are so many steps and not everyone can do it. (Milsom)

Not everyone can do it, but a large majority do. Research by Graeme Hugo, for example, shows that although humanitarian settlers in Australia face substantial barriers to employment and initially have much higher unemployment rates than other immigrants, for most nationality groups this difference has disappeared by the second generation: “This is consistent with the sacrifice (or investment) of the first generation and the efforts extended to attain higher levels of education and English proficiency, thereby reducing the barriers over time.” (Hugo 35). Ingrid Poulson writes that “resilience is not just about bouncing. Bouncing […] is only a reaction. Resilience is about rising—you rise above it, you rise to the occasion, you rise to the challenge. Rising is an active choice” (47; my emphasis) I see resilience as involving mental and physical grit, coupled with creativity, aspiration and, crucially, agency.

Dimensions of Resettlement

To return to the story of 41-year-old Jerome Rugaruza, as related in a recent newspaper article:

He [Mr Rugaruza] describes the experience of being a newly arrived refugee as being like that of a newborn baby. “You need special care; you have to learn to speak [English], eat the different food, create relationships, connections”. (Milsom)

This is a key dimension of resettlement: the adult becomes like an infant again, shifting from someone who knows how things work and how to get by to someone who is likely to be, for a while, dependent on others for even the most basic things—communication, food, shelter, clothing, and social contact. The “special care” that most refugee arrivals need initially (and sometimes for a long time) often results in their being seen as deficient—in knowledge, skills, dispositions, and capacities as well as material goods (Keddie; Uptin, Wright and Harwood). As Fozdar and Hartley note: “The tendency to use a deficit model in refugee resettlement devalues people and reinforces the view of the mainstream population that refugees are a liability” (27). 

Yet unlike newborns, humanitarian settlers come to their new countries with rich social networks and extensive histories of experience and learning—resources that are in fact vital to their rebirth. Sisay (all names are pseudonyms), a year 11 student of Ethiopian heritage who was born in Kenya, told me with feeling:

I had a life back in Africa [her emphasis]. It was good. Well, I would go back there if there’s no problems, which—is a fact. And I came here for a better life—yeah, I have a better life, there’s good health care, free school, and good environment and all that. But what’s that without friends?

A fellow student, Celine, who came to Australia five years ago from Burundi via Uganda, told me in a focus group:

Some teachers are really good but I think some other teachers could be a little bit more encouraging and understanding of what we’ve gone through, because [they] just look at you like “You’re year 11 now, you should know this” […] It’s really discouraging when [the teachers say] in front of the class, “Oh, you shouldn’t do this subject because you haven’t done this this this this” […]  It’s like they’re on purpose to tell you “you don’t have what it takes; just give up and do something else.”

As Uptin, Wright and Harwood note, “schools not only have the power to position who is included in schooling (in culture and pedagogy) but also have the power to determine whether there is room and appreciation for diversity” (126). Both Sisay and Celine were disheartened by the fact they felt some of their teachers, and many of their peers, had little interest in or understanding of their lives before they came to Australia. The teachers’ low expectations of refugee-background students (Keddie, Uptin, Wright and Harwood) contrasted with the students’ and their families’ high expectations of themselves (Brown, Miller and Mitchell; Harris and Marlowe). When I asked Sisay about her post-school ambitions, she said: “I have a good idea of my future […] write a documentary. And I’m working on it.” Celine’s response was: “I know I’m gonna do medicine, be a doctor.” A third girl, Lily, who came to Australia from Myanmar three years ago, told me she wanted to be an accountant and had studied accounting at the local TAFE last year.

Joseph, a father of three who resettled from South Sudan seven years ago, stressed how important getting a job was to successful settlement:

[But] you have to get a certificate first to get a job. Even the job of cleaning—when I came here I was told that somebody has to go to have training in cleaning, to use the different chemicals to clean the ground and all that. But that is just sweeping and cleaning with water—you don’t need the [higher-level] skills. Simple jobs like this, we are not able to get them.

In regional Australia, employment opportunities tend to be limited (Fozdar and Hartley); the unemployment rate in Easthaven is twice the national average. Opportunities to study are also more limited than in urban centres, and would-be students are not always eligible for financial assistance to gain or upgrade qualifications. Even when people do have appropriate qualifications, work experience, and language proficiency, the colour of their skin may still mean they miss out on a job. Tilbury and Colic-Peisker have documented the various ways in which employers deflect responsibility for racial discrimination, including the “common” strategy (658) of arguing that while the employer or organisation is not prejudiced, they have to discriminate because of their clients’ needs or expectations. I heard this strategy deployed in an interview with a local businesswoman, Catriona:

We were advertising for a new technician. And one of the African refugees came to us and he’d had a lot of IT experience. And this is awful, but we felt we couldn't give him the job, because we send our technicians into people's houses, and we knew that if a black African guy rocked up at someone’s house to try and fix their computer, they would not always be welcomed in all—look, it would not be something that [Easthaven] was ready for yet. 

Colic-Peisker and Tilbury (Refugees and Employment) note that while Australia has strict anti-discrimination legislation, this legislation may be of little use to the people who, because of the way they look and sound (skin colour, dress, accent), are most likely to face prejudice and discrimination. The researchers found that perceived discrimination in the labour market affected humanitarian settlers’ sense of satisfaction with their new lives far more than, for example, racist remarks, which were generally shrugged off; the students I interviewed spoke of racism as “expected,” but “quite rare.” Most of the people Colic-Peisker and Tilbury surveyed reported finding Australians “friendly and accepting” (33).

Even if there is no active discrimination on the basis of skin colour in employment, education, or housing, or overt racism in social situations, visible difference can still affect a person’s sense of belonging, as Joseph recounts:

I think of myself as Australian, but my colour doesn’t [laughs] […] Unfortunately many, many Australians are expecting that Australia is a country of Europeans … There is no need for somebody to ask “Where do you come from?” and “Do you find Australia here safe?” and “Do you enjoy it?” Those kind of questions doesn’t encourage that we are together.

This highlights another dimension of resettlement: the journey from feeling “at home” to feeling “foreign” to, eventually, feeling at home again in the host country (Colic-Peisker and Tilbury, Refugees and Employment). In the case of visibly different settlers, however, this last stage may never be completed. Whether the questions asked of Joseph are well intentioned or not, their effect may be the same: they position him as a “forever foreigner” (Park).

A further dimension of resettlement—one already touched on—is the degree to which humanitarian settlers actively manage their “rebirth,” and are allowed and encouraged to do so. A key factor will be their mastery of English, and Easthaven’s ESL teachers are thus pivotal in the resettlement process. There is little doubt that many of these teachers have gone to great lengths to help this cohort of students, not only in terms of language acquisition but also social inclusion. However, in some cases what is initially supportive can, with time, begin to undermine refugees’ maturity into independent citizens. Sharon, an ESL teacher at one of the schools, told me how she and her colleagues would give their refugee-background students lifts to social events:

But then maybe three years down the track they have a car and their dad can drive, but they still won’t take them […] We arrive to pick them up and they’re not ready, or there’s five fantastic cars in the driveway, and you pick up the student and they say “My dad’s car’s much bigger and better than yours” [laughs]. So there’s an expectation that we’ll do stuff for them, but we’ve created that [my emphasis].

Other support services may have more complex interests in keeping refugee settlers dependent. The more clients an agency has, the more services it provides, and the longer clients stay on its books, the more lucrative the contract for the agency. Thus financial and employment imperatives promote competition rather than collaboration between service providers (Fozdar and Hartley; Sidhu and Taylor) and may encourage assumptions about what sorts of services different individuals and groups want and need. Colic-Peisker and Tilbury (“‘Active’ and ‘Passive’ Resettlement”) have developed a typology of resettlement styles—“achievers,” “consumers,” “endurers,” and “victims”—but stress that a person’s style, while influenced by personality and pre-migration factors, is also shaped by the institutions and individuals they come into contact with: “The structure of settlement and welfare services may produce a victim mentality, leaving members of refugee communities inert and unable to see themselves as agents of change” (76).

The prevailing narrative of “the traumatised refugee” is a key aspect of this dynamic (Colic-Peisker and Tilbury, “‘Active’ and ‘Passive’ Resettlement”; Fozdar and Hartley; Keddie). Service providers may make assumptions about what humanitarian settlers have gone through before arriving in Australia, how they have been affected by their experiences, and what must be done to “fix” them. Norah, a long-time caseworker, told me:

I think you get some [providers] who go, “How could you have gone through something like that and not suffered? There must be—you must have to talk about this stuff” […] Where some [refugees] just come with the [attitude] “We’re all born into a situation; that was my situation, but I’m here now and now my focus is this.”

She cited failure to consider cultural sensitivities around mental illness and to recognise that stress and anxiety during early resettlement are normal (Tilbury) as other problems in the sector:

[Newly arrived refugees] go through the “happy to be here” [phase] and now “hang on, I’ve thumped to the bottom and I’m missing my own foods and smells and cultures and experiences”. I think sometimes we’re just too quick to try and slot people into a box.

One factor that appears to be vital in fostering and sustaining resilience is social connection. Norah said her clients were “very good on the mobile phone” and had links “everywhere,” including to family and friends in their countries of birth, transition countries, and other parts of Australia. A 2011 report for DIAC, Settlement Outcomes of New Arrivals, found that humanitarian entrants to Australia were significantly more likely to be members of cultural and/or religious groups than other categories of immigrants (Australian Survey Research). I found many examples of efforts to build both bonding and bridging capital (Putnam) in Easthaven, and I offer two examples below.

Several people told me about a dinner-dance that had been held a few weeks before one of my visits. The event was organised by an African women’s group, which had been formed—with funding assistance—several years before. The dinner-dance was advertised in the local newspaper and attracted strong interest from a broad cross-section of Easthaveners. To Debbie, a counsellor, the response signified a “real turnaround” in community relations and was a big boon to the women’s sense of belonging.

Erica, a teacher, told me about a cultural exchange day she had organised between her bush school—where almost all of the children are Anglo Australian—and ESL students from one of the town schools:

At the start of the day, my kids were looking at [the refugee-background students] and they were scared, they were saying to me, "I feel scared." And we shoved them all into this tiny little room […] and they had no choice but to sit practically on top of each other. And by the end of the day, they were hugging each other and braiding their hair and jumping and playing together.  

Like Uptin, Wright and Harwood, I found that the refugee-background students placed great importance on the social aspects of school. Sisay, the girl I introduced earlier in this paper, said: “It’s just all about friendship and someone to be there for you […] We try to be friends with them [the non-refugee students] sometimes but sometimes it just seems they don’t want it.”


A 2012 report on refugee settlement services in NSW concludes that the state “is not meeting its responsibility to humanitarian entrants as well as it could” (Audit Office of New South Wales 2); moreover, humanitarian settlers in NSW are doing less well on indicators such as housing and health than humanitarian settlers in other states (3). Evaluating the effectiveness of formal refugee-centred programs was not part of my research and is beyond the scope of this paper. Rather, I have sought to reveal some of the ways in which the attitudes, assumptions, and everyday practices of service providers and members of the broader community impact on refugees' settlement experience. What I heard repeatedly in the interviews I conducted was that it was emotional and practical support (Matthews; Tilbury), and being asked as well as told (about their hopes, needs, desires), that helped Easthaven’s refugee settlers bear themselves into fulfilling new lives.  


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Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2011 Census QuickStats. Mar. 2013. 11 Aug. 2013 ‹>.

Australian Survey Research. Settlement Outcomes of New Arrivals—Report of Findings. Apr. 2011. 15 Aug. 2013 ‹>.

Brown, Jill, Jenny Miller, and Jane Mitchell. “Interrupted Schooling and the Acquisition of Literacy: Experiences of Sudanese Refugees in Victorian Secondary Schools.” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy 29.2 (2006): 150-62.

Colic-Peisker, Val, and Farida Tilbury. “‘Active’ and ‘Passive’ Resettlement: The Influence of Supporting Services and Refugees’ Own Resources on Resettlement Style.” International Migration 41.5 (2004): 61-91.

———. Refugees and Employment: The Effect of Visible Difference on Discrimination—Final Report. Perth: Centre for Social and Community Research, Murdoch University, 2007.

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———, and Val Colic-Peisker. “Deflecting Responsibility in Employer Talk about Race Discrimination.” Discourse & Society 17.5 (2006): 651-76.

Uptin, Jonnell, Jan Wright, and Valerie Harwood. “It Felt Like I Was a Black Dot on White Paper: Examining Young Former Refugees’ Experience of Entering Australian High Schools.” The Australian Educational Researcher 40.1 (2013): 125-37.

Author Biography

Neroli Colvin, Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney

Neroli Colvin is a PhD student at the University of Western Sydney’s Institute for Culture and Society. Her research examines the attitudes towards and understandings of cultural diversity in two schools in a regional Australian town. It reveals the ways in which hierarchies of difference are (re)produced within and beyond the schools and traces the impacts on teaching and learning programs and community relations.