New chair to focus on refugee-led advocacy

Jasmina Bajraktarevic-Hayward is the new chair of the Refugee Council of Australia. Picture: Simon Bennett
Jasmina Bajraktarevic-Hayward is the new chair of the Refugee Council of Australia. Picture: Simon Bennett

When Bosnia-Herzegovina refugee Jasmina Bajraktarevic-Hayward came to Australia in 1993 she felt "welcome and safe".

"I marvelled at the choice, freedom and diversity, I fell in love with the natural world...though I have to say I struggled with Australian humour and accents," said Ms Bajraktarevic-Hayward, who last month was elected president of the Refugee Council of Australia.

"During the Bosnian war, the Australian Government had a special category for people from countries of former Yugoslavia. My parents are of different ethnic backgrounds and at the time I arrived, mixed marriages were at a particular risk. My aunt was in Australia since early 1970s and she nominated us.

"I knew very little about Australia prior to my arrival. Being who I am, I hit the ground running when I arrived - connected with Bosnian community, organised offers by two schools of social work and six months later, was employed by STARTTS - The NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors."

It's a role she has held ever since and in her position as a social worker and community services coordinator has been a pillar for refugee advocacy.

She said she is "honoured, excited, proud and grateful" to be the first president of the RCOA with lived refugee experience which is a national umbrella body for refugees and the organisations and individuals who support them.

"People with lived experience have a unique and deep understanding of refugees' lives, needs, strengths and challenges, making it imperative they are in positions that have a profound effect on the future of refugees," said Ms Bajraktarevic-Hayward, who said she will continue supporting the "excellent work" of the Refugee Council staff and board including working on a new strategic plan and ongoing opportunities to diversify the funding base.

"People of refugee backgrounds are the experts on our life stories, our strengths, our knowledge and the challenges we face. That is why we should be taking centre stage and leading the decision making that impacts our lives. When given the opportunity and resources, those with first-hand experience are best placed to devise the most effective solutions to their own challenges. Beyond our lived experience, we bring education, expertise, skills and capacity. The lived experience is an important part but not the only chapter to our story."

Ms Bajraktarevic-Hayward, who acknowledged the learning she received through her own lived experience and from the many "amazing refugee community leaders" she has worked with, said she will continue working on refugee-led advocacy - giving the "centre stage" to people with lived experience.

"This happens through creating spaces and amplifying voices, training and mentoring and facilitating access to resources. RCOA has social capital that enables us to build relationships, create space and make sure refugees take the centre stage in the advocacy process," she said.

"One thing I won't forget while doing this job, is that working in the refugee space is not about you and your life, your career or profile. It is about creating change as sought by those whose lives it impacts."

When asked what she thinks some of the biggest issues facing refugees at the moment are, she said: "There are over 80 million forcibly displaced people around the world and 20 million are under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees."

"There is a need to tackle the root causes of forced displacement, support people in the first countries of asylum and provide safety and resettlement where necessary. As for Australia - we need to increase Humanitarian Intake overall, increase intake from Afghanistan, and facilitate family reunion via providing permanent protection particularly for those from Afghanistan," she said.

"I would like to urge all Australians to see people of refugee backgrounds through what they bring to Australia - the skills, knowledge, education, determination and resilience. There is an aspect of being a victim during the refugee journey, but the flip side to victimhood is survival. The flip side to trauma is traumatic growth. Refugees need support after their arrival but with the right support, we become exceptional contributing members of our society. There are many former refugees who have inspired me and who I deeply respect and appreciate."

Outgoing president Phil Glendenning said the election of Ms Bajraktarevic-Hayward was an "inspirational choice".