Surviving the aftermath

Some African humanitarian entrants may set foot on Australian soil with no physical belongings but many more carry with them the hidden baggage of their life experiences.

For some, that includes the memories of torture, deprivation, persecution, and oppression – memories they bring with them on their journeys into a new life and which remain with them despite the added challenges they face in grappling with housing, schooling, financial issues and employment in their strange and complex new world.

When the distraction of the new challenges is finally stilled, those haunting memories from the past, temporarily relegated to the subconscious, now re-surface to disturb their seemingly tranquil world, and fling many back to relive those hidden horrors and revive the long buried trauma.

The Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service (STTARS) is a non-government, not for profit organisation with no political or religious affiliations. Its primary mission is to assist people from a refugee and migrant background who have experienced torture or have been traumatised as a result of persecution, violence, war or unlawful imprisonment prior to their arrival in Australia. STTARS has been providing these services in South Australia since 1991.

SALT Magazine spoke with Linda Matthews, the Acting Director of STTARS, to find out more about the organisation and its work.

Linda, who has worked in various government departments and was the SA Equal Opportunity Commissioner for 14 years, was happy to share her experience with us. “I’m very interested in plight of refugees and asylum seekers and with my human rights background it was a good fit for me to come and do this work” she said.

According to Linda most of their work is on an individual face to face basis, supporting vulnerable people who have been victims of torture and traumas.  The service provides individual counselling and also runs group sessions and social activities to improve the wellbeing of clients.

“We have drumming groups, we have specific women’s group, sometimes we have young men of varying background, and sometimes we mix up the groups, they are not always just for people from a particular country because we see the value of putting people together.”

She says the service is driven by the needs of the individuals concerned and the particular nature of their experience and their condition.

Whether it is a mental health or a physical health issue, STTARS makes referrals to other specialist providers, and ensures the best possible, appropriate treatment is provided.

Her staff of qualified counsellors tailor different approaches to meet the needs of individual clients, as, says Linda, “Some people aren’t ready to share their traumatic experiences straight away. They feel the need to be like other new arrivals, but often have a really very difficult time. They get here feeling very optimistic, and feel like they are ready to take on the world because they have escaped the worst of what happened to them. They get jobs, kids, schools and so on, but then, at some later time the effects of that trauma will return. Everyone is different when that happens.”

We asked Linda to identify the most common problems she deals with and who is most affected. “It is mostly the young, male and female, who find it difficult to adjust. Often the young men have issues with the police, and we get referrals that way. For girls the issues can be self-destructive, and sometimes the parents’ response doesn’t make things any better. We also find that single women coming from Africa can be very isolated.”

The organisation uses community capacity building modules to help people connect, understand and find ways to support each other, as it is easy for trauma and torture victims to become socially isolated or lose community connection. Linda said she would like to continue to make STTARS a welcoming place for anyone who needs help and wants more people to access the services it provides.

“We appreciate the involvement of many of South Australia’s diverse community groups,” she said, “They help to identify issues in the community and inform new arrivals about the service.”

SALT Magazine applauds the work that STTARS does amongst the vulnerable members of our communities, and calls on our readers to ensure they spread the word to any of their acquaintances who would benefit from the services it provides.

Sidique is the founder of Salt Magazine. He came to Australia in 2001 after fleeing a civil war in his homeland of Sierra Leone. He studied journalism at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and worked as a reporter for the Statesman Newspaper. He studied a Bachelor of Arts specialising in Multimedia Studies at the University of South Australia.

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