Bendigo Community Health Services is home to more than 50 services and 250 staff. Take a journey through our organisation to learn more about our services and programs by meeting some of our wonderful staff through our blog Discovering BCHS…
HELPING refugees adjust to their new lives in central Victoria is more than just a job for Sue Ghalayini – it is a rewarding vocation that has carried over into her personal life as well.
As part of Bendigo Community Health Services’ humanitarian settlement service team, Sue has been so touched by the harrowing stories of displaced families she encounters that she felt compelled to visit two Karen refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border to see for herself.
“I took as many things with me as I could to distribute to the people there, who have absolutely nothing,” she says of her trip last year to the large-scale Mae La camp, which has 30,000 residents, and the smaller, more isolated Ban Mae Surin camp.
“This included first aid supplies, colouring books, soccer balls and wind-up torches for the women and children to find their way to the toilet at night, which can be quite dangerous.
“Some Karen families in Bendigo also gave me items to take to relatives who are still in the camps, and I visited a family that had been assigned to me to come to Bendigo, but had been postponed because of health problems, which was devastating for them.”
Even though Sue knew conditions in the camps were extremely tough, she was still not fully prepared for what awaited her.
“I was really dismayed because one camp was so remote that the sense of helplessness there was immense. There were 3000 people in the middle of nowhere with a trip of many hours across rivers in a 4WD to get to civilisation.
“I don’t know how they get supplies, especially during the wet season. They just have to manage the best they can – these beautiful young families, many with no hope of ever leaving because they don’t have anyone to sponsor them.”
Sue has now offered to personally sponsor a Karen family from Mae La to come to Bendigo.
“They have no one – when you read over their documents, everyone else in their family is dead and it is just this young couple and their daughter. A Karen family here helped me sponsor them and hopefully their application to come out here will be approved soon.”
The 51-year-old mother of two is a volunteer firefighter in Sutton Grange, where she has lived for 30 years, and is also on the local hall committee. These activities give her a real sense of belonging in her community, which she aims to help replicate for refugees locally.
“My job is all about creating inclusive social communities and an environment where these families have that sense of belonging.
“Some of the children and young adults have never known anything other than a refugee camp, so they’ve never felt they ‘belonged’ anywhere. But they adjust to Bendigo so well.
“I am astounded how quickly they are driving cars, or shopping in supermarkets – something so simple, but so challenging for them when they first arrive. Or when I see their children speaking English and getting an education after just a short time here, it is so wonderful.”
BCHS has about 200 refugees on its books, mostly Karen and Afghani. It offers primary settlement support for up to 12 months, with secondary support lasting up to five more years.
“The biggest part of my role is advocacy,” says Sue of the primary settlement program.
“My clients don’t have a voice so I advocate for them in all aspects of their settlement in Bendigo that they find challenging.”
She assists with tasks like finding accommodation, enrolling children in school, dealing with power and other utility companies, accessing Centrelink services, navigating our health system, or something as simple as using an automatic teller machine for the first time ever.
She also liaises with other refugee service providers to ensure they provide appropriate, culturally sensitive practices, including interpreters, and links them with settling families.
It is a far cry from her former life milking goats and making cheese at the Holy Goat Cheese farm, where she worked immediately before going to university at the mature age of 41.
“The cheese farm was physically hard work and it wasn’t my passion – I’d always wanted to do social work, even when I lived in Melbourne, but I moved here and started having babies.
“It was a difficult decision to quit my job and become a full-time student because I was a single parent bring up two kids at that stage. I worked part-time for family services at the Salvation Army on Saturdays to help us get through.”
Sue completed a work placement at with BCHS during the final year of her masters of social work, and ended up getting a job in settlement services after she graduated.
She says the organisation provides support and programs crucial to the physical and mental health and wellbeing of refugees who are granted settlement in Bendigo.
“Where they have come from, they have had to deal with things we could never even begin to comprehend,” she says. “They have experienced grief, torture, trauma, displacement and have lost everything. Without that initial welcome and assistance, they would flounder.
“But Bendigo has been such a welcoming society – there are hundreds of people providing services and assistance for refugees in this city.
“People in the overseas camps are actually choosing to come here and live as their original settlement area. And the amount of transfer requests made to come to Bendigo is amazing.
“We even have Karen families buying homes here now, which is a great achievement – it takes about six years on average, but many are moving into their own homes.”
Sue has always thrived on being deeply involved in her local community and says her job at BCHS gives her enormous personal and professional satisfaction.
“I get to make those phone calls to families when I get referrals, telling them they are coming to Bendigo - and that is just so exciting.
“Who could not love a job like that!”
Sue is also a CFA volunteer with the Sutton Grange brigade.