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By the middle of this year, the number of refugees who will have moved to NSW this financial year will swell to 10,500 due to a special intake of 6,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Meet the team on the frontline of Legal Aid NSW’s first specific legal program for refugees. The new Legal Aid NSW Refugee Service aims to provide a trauma-informed and culturally aware legal service to refugee clients. And it’s keen to let people know it is here to help. There are opportunities for non-government solicitors, too, with calls for more pro bono work and jobs for refugees.

In the scrupulously neat conference room of Legal Aid’s Blacktown office, Oliver Slewa is describing his work with refugees and recent arrivals. Dressed in a dark navy jacket, the Baghdad-born lawyer’s easy smile complements his crisp, engaging manner.

Slewa knows well the experience refugees face. He talks about the failed attempt his family made to flee the violence and persecution in Iraq in 1990, the successful escape he, his mother and three older siblings made in 1992, their journey through Jordan and Turkey and the 40 days they spent in a boat teeming with refugees off the coast of Cyprus before being permitted to come onto the beach in Greece.

“I was four and half years old, one of the youngest on the boat,” he says. “People were jumping out, trying to swim. Finally, small boats took us to the shore and I remember someone running to give me a bottle of water and a snack, then trying to direct us. When we got to the shore, there was a sense of relief. But it wasn’t the end, it was the start of a whole new journey. After two years in Greece, we were granted a Woman at Risk visa to Australia.”

Today, Slewa is part of a new five-person Legal Aid team that will provide free legal advice to recent arrivals. The Legal Aid NSW Refugee Service (LANRS) pilot program is based in the Bankstown office and will specifically target the intake of 6,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are expected to settle in the Fairfield local government area in Sydney’s west.

“It (LANRS) will fill a gap and provide extra services for the newly arrived refugees,” says Slewa, who is a civil solicitor with LANRS. “With such a big number of refugees, this program will open doors to legal services, strengthen relationships and manage our ability to service that community.”

Legal Aid Refugee Service team
The new Legal Aid Refugee Service team (from left) Oliver Slewa, Jeremie Quiohilag, Nouvart Asadourian and Iliana Cruz Montalvo.

From the time Slewa was at St Johns Park High School near Fairfield, becoming a lawyer was, he thought, one of the best ways to help people access justice and to advocate for human rights. More fundamentally, it was a wish to help those who had struggled with the same journey he had endured. After graduating from Western Sydney University in 2012, he worked as a migration agent at the Assyrian Resource Centre in Fairfield providing free legal advice. Apart from Legal Aid, which has strict eligibility criteria based partly on income, he offered the only free service in an area that has been a traditional settling point for new refugees. Because he spoke Arabic and Assyrian, people would come to him from all over Sydney.

“One of the things that made me even stronger in my desire to help was assisting someone reunite with a parent after 10 years,” he says, pausing and looking down before taking a long breath. “It was really close to me because I spent 16 years growing up in a new country before I was reunited with my father who stayed in Iraq when we left. It was really hard.

“Seeing the family being so happy really reminded me why I wanted to be in this role. Every time they see me they still thank me. That’s so rewarding. You’re filling their home up again.”

According to Jeremie Quiohilag, LANRS’s senior solicitor, the program has been established to help newly arrived refugees understand their legal rights and responsibilities. It has secured four years of Federal Government funding. In the first instance, it’s all about community legal education and awareness.

“When people first arrive, they’ve got a lot on their plate: accommodation, getting their kids into school, trying to find a job,” says Quiohilag. “So, in that first six-month period, if we can at least get people to be able to remember that we’re here if something goes wrong, that we’re a free legal service and to call and call early, that’s a success.”

With such a big number of refugees, this program will open doors to legal services, strengthen relationships and manage our ability to service that community.

lawyer, Legal Aid NSW Refugee Service

The Federal Government has allocated $638 million over four years toward the additional intake. The NSW Government has pledged $4 million over four years for the new Legal Aid service. Fairfield City Mayor Frank Carbone has appealed to State and Federal governments to “step up and be accountable” to ensure resettlement works. He has described the number of new refugees as “the equivalent of an entire suburb’s population in one location in such a short period of time”.

NSW has stepped up by appointing Professor Peter Shergold as Coordinator General of the NSW Government’s refugee resettlement program. Shergold, an academic and former public servant who is Chancellor of Western Sydney University, is calling on the legal profession to employ refugees and to offer pro bono legal services.

“Refugees come from societies in which what we think of freedom before the law hasbroken down,” he explains. “They tend to come from countries where, frankly, legal systems are dysfunctional, so when they come here often they bring with them a perfectly understandable fear of authority. And the law is a great part of that. Some refugees don’t understand the difference between the civil arena and the criminal arena.”

Areas in which refugees need particular help are housing law, employment law, general contracts and consumer protection.

“The other thing is immigration law, because most refugees who arrive also harbour ambitions that in the future they will be able to help other members of their extended families to join them,” says Shergold.

He says most of the 6,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq are likely to settle in western Sydney and that “a very high proportion” are being sponsored by family.

“The Commonwealth selects the refugees and decides where they will initially settle,” he explains. “If they are sponsored by family, it’s likely they will go, initially at least, to join their families, and the reality is that most Syrians, Iraqis and Armenians have settled in western Sydney, particularly the Fairfield and Liverpool area.”

NSW is the only state to appoint a Coordinator General for the resettlement of refugees. Shergold says he is working with government departments and community organisations at the frontline, as well as legal aid services, law firms and companies “in order to have a whole-of-community response rather than just a whole-of-government response”.

“My appointment recognises that this was an opportunity to improve the way in which we help refugees to settle in NSW,” he says. “Virtually all refugees come here with a couple of ambitions; obviously, to find a new home at peace, to get their children educated, and to get themselves into employment. They want to become self-reliant once again, to take control of their lives. So employment is the key.”

Shergood wants solicitors and law firms “to stand up and speak out on the value that refugees give in society”.

“Look at the extraordinary example of (NSW Australian of the Year) Deng Adut who was, of course, a Western Sydney University student who got to uni through coming here, teaching himself English, getting into a TAFE course, getting into a university course and now has been awarded the NSW Law Society President’s medal,” Shergold says. “His story can be repeated.”

Kate Cato, Employment Advisor in the Refugee Resettlement Team of the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, says it is important to acknowledge that NSW solicitors are a diverse group with almost one in three having been born overseas.

For refugees such as Maria*, the benefits of flexible and early intervention are clear. When Maria escaped the war in Syria and came to Australia, she thought she was heading to a better place. Her father died when she was three and, after a number of years staying at home as a live-in nurse, her mother died when Maria was in her teens.

With few family ties and fighting in her village, she moved to Australia to live with her then husband. After two years, the relationship deteriorated. Her husband didn’t work, he gambled what little money they had, and was abusive. In the end, Maria fled to a refuge in Harris Park.

Legal Aid NSW’s Oliver Slewa with Maria.
Legal Aid NSW’s Oliver Slewa with Maria.

“It took a long time to find support,” says Maria, 35, who works in Fairfield as a live-in carer.

“The refuge staff helped with my immigration papers as much as they could but in the end they told me I needed to see a lawyer but no-one could give me a straight answer.”

Eventually, after a year of visiting expensive local solicitors and migration agents, she approached staff at the office of her Federal member, Chris Bowen, out of desperation. They gave her a list of names of services and she chose the Salvation Army, based purely on her liking the name. They put her in touch with Legal Aid and Slewa.

“When I finally reached Oliver, all my stress disappeared. It felt like I’d won the $50 million lotto,” she says. “He understood my problems, spoke Assyrian and made me very comfortable. I felt like they would help me.

“Before I came to Legal Aid, I would have nightmares about being back in my village in Syria because Daesh (another term for Islamic State) now controls it. If I’d come to Legal Aid from the start, I wouldn’t have suffered and had all these troubles. Now, when people arrive, and they’re struggling with lots of appointments, finding accommodation and things like Medicare, I tell them that they need to speak to Legal Aid.”

Developing and maintaining a direct relationship with the refugee community is a critical part of the new Legal Aid NSW team’s goals.

Jeremie Quiohilag knows that the service also needs to embrace innovative ways of connecting with the community they’re working with. In purely bureaucratic speak, that might be termed “flexible service delivery”.

Quiohilag has worked with the Redfern Legal Centre, including as a Court Support Worker for domestic violence victims as well as an investigator with the NSW Ombudsman’s Office.

She says that on the ground, the team will need to tap into the extensive community and civic organisations Legal Aid already works with, speaking at English classes and community hubs organised through school networks and attending community events. Legal Aid also plans to create some short, animated videos in various languages to explain to young refugees through social media platforms the services Legal Aid offers.

“What I’ve learnt over the years is that sitting in the office and expecting them to come to us does not work,” says Quiohilag. “If someone comes through the door, you need to understand that that in itself is a huge step. So rather than saying, ‘You will need to come back at this time when we have appointments’, we want to be flexible enough to see them straight away.

Slewa also knows the value of doing things differently. As well as developing a rapport with the community, he helps spread the word through community radio, including SBS’s Assyrian language channel.

“I got a call once from a person whose cousin had listened to my show online in Lebanon and had told him in Sydney to call me,” Slewa says. “When people know that they can access you and that they can trust you, word spreads in the community.”

The most pressing issue for many new arrivals is dealing with migration law issues around reuniting families.

For Slewa, who came to the law to help with resettlement, this service allows him to continue his dream of working to bring lives back together.

“Seeing people reunited after two, three or 10 years was such a joyous occasion that I would celebrate with them,” he says.

“They would come back with a gift of baklava or invite me for a family dinner or barbecue to thank me because they didn’t know how to say it. This has kept driving me.”

Of course, not every story ends with such joy. Slewa has learnt to understand that it’s more about how you explain that things may not work out in the client’s favour.

“You need to change expectations and assure them that there may be different options,” he says. “But there’s always this emotional tie, they’re always trying to get to your heart.

“I can understand that by the time they left Iraq or Syria, they’ve had to beg someone or ask for help. Then when they went to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, they had to cry out their story again, and then to the Department of Immigration. They’re constantly telling that story and asking for help. It can be hard to deal with, but you learn to understand where they’re coming from. It’s the sort of thing you definitely don’t learn at university.”

As well as providing immigration advice, the staff expect to deal with a number of other legal issues. Problems relating to tenancy, contracts with mobile phone providers or utilities, and issues with Centrelink are some of the major areas the service will be targeting with a hope that being proactive will not only prevent an escalation of any legal problems but also help educate people about their rights.

“I had a family of five adults and a baby in a new rental and they had lived with almost no hot water for three months,” Quiohilag says. “They didn’t want to rock the boat, but just a few strongly worded emails about our client’s rights – and what we would do if it wasn’t attended to – meant the problem was quickly fixed.”

What I’ve learnt over the years is that sitting in the office and expecting them to come to us does not work. If someone comes through the door, you need to understand that that in itself is a huge step. We want to be flexible enough to see them straight away.

lawyer, Legal Aid NSW Refugee Service

Dealing with clients who have experienced trauma or torture also brings risks for staff. One of the elements of the service is regular briefings to ensure the wellbeing of the small team is maintained.

“Having regular professional supervision to help support the staff is really important,” says Quiohilag.

“We’re a small team servicing a huge community and we need to make sure we don’t run ourselves into the ground. When we hear these traumatic stories, we need to try and minimise the risk of vicarious trauma that can happen when you’re working with clients who have had these experiences.

“In the end, we want to create goodwill and make an impact. At the same time, the hardest part is making sure that what we come up with is sustainable, because we’re a small team and the need is really, really huge.

“So, balancing that need against making sure we don’t run ourselves into the ground are some of the biggest challenges.”

Want to lend a helping hand?

The Australian Government announced in September 2015 that it would take an extra 12,000 refugees in response to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The conflict in Syria is one of the largest humanitarian disasters of our time. More than 11.6 million people, including 7.6 million people internally, have been displaced. Last year, NSW took 4,500 refugees and, by July, will take that number plus 6,000 more, mostly from Syria and Iraq.

Nerida Harvey, the Principal Solicitor who manages the Law Society’s Pro Bono Scheme, expects the load of pro bono cases for new arrivals will fall with solicitors in small- to medium-sized suburban law firms.

“It can be quite daunting for refugees to come into a tower in the city to meet their lawyer,” she explains. “It’s much easier for them to see a lawyer in a suburban practice where there are people who may be from a similar country or region and may be able to speak their language.

“I expect with the new refugees that their legal problems to do with housing and Centrelink and family payments will show up three to six months after they arrive. Some cases will not fit into the Legal Aid criteria and we will consider taking them on. The majority of matters are referred out to private law firms for assistance. However, we also have capacity to assist in an in-house basis.

“More than 400 firms have signed up to the Law Society pro bono scheme and we always need more. Most of our cases are family law matters. We have to make it as easy as possible for people to apply for help.”

But not all help needs to come in the form of pro bono legal advice. One firm, Henry Davis York, is providing refugee employment. Last year, under a program called Career Seekers which offers refugees opportunities to break into the employment market, the firm employed a refugee who trained as a solicitor in Russia but who isn’t admitted as a lawyer in NSW.

The woman, who moved here with a child, did a rotation similar to a graduate rotation program, so she could learn how Australian law operates and explore the work opportunities that may be available to her utilising her existing skills. Henry Davis York recently xtended her a full-time job offer as a paralegal.

“It’s about creating links and giving refugees a chance to get some experience in the workplace,” says Kathy Merrick, head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Henry Davis York.

“As a firm, our legal and non-legal staff are concerned about the issues facing asylum seekers and refugees, and there is a huge amount of goodwill among our staff. We already do pro bono work with RACS (the Refugee Advice and Casework Service). The Career Seekers program is another way of providing assistance.

“I understand that the Syrian refugees coming to NSW in the next few months will be living away from the Sydney CBD, where our corporate firm is based, so it is unlikely we will be providing assistance directly to those new arrivals. However, we will be looking at how we can help support the service providers who will be assisting them.

Merrick suggests lawyers and law firms who want to help look at the opportunities on or consider joining the Career Seekers network via

If you or your firm are available for pro bono work with refugees, contact Nerida Harvey on 02 9926 0364.