Violet Roumeliotis – on Restoring Dignity

With nearly 1 in every 100 people worldwide now displaced from their homes since the end of 2015, NFP agencies like Settlement Services International (SSI) are needed now more than ever. Voted by Pro Bono Australia in 2014 and 2015 as one of the top 25 most influential people working in the not-for-profit sector, we were honoured to get an insight into the kind of work that CEO Violet Roumeliotis does to ease hardship and restore human dignity to societies’ most vulnerable; refugees, asylum seekers and people living with disability.

By Joanne Leila Smith

According to a report commissioned by the Pew Research Center, ‘Key Facts about the World’s Refugees’ (Connor et al 2016), since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began collecting data on displaced persons in 1951 nearly 1 in 100 people worldwide are now displaced from their homes.

The UNHCR Global Trends Forced Displacement Report says by the end of 2015, 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide due to persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. On average 24 persons were displaced from their homes per minute in 2015.  51 percent of children below 18 years of age constituted approximately half of the refugee population of this percentage – 98,400 were unaccompanied or separated children.

The top four host countries for refugee intakes are Turkey (2.5 M), Pakistan (1.6 M), Lebanon (1.1 M) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (979K).

Since the end of 2015, 11,776 refugees were resettled in Australia.

Apart from CEO Violet Roumeliotis’s role with Settlement Services International, an NFP that provides a range of services in the areas of refugee settlement, migrant support services, asylum seeker assistance, housing, multicultural foster care, disability support, employment services and youth support in NSW (and as the state-wide umbrella organisation for 11 Migrant Resource Centres and Multicultural Services across NSW) Roumeliotis sits on the NSW Government’s Justice Multicultural Advisory Committee, the Federal Government’s Settlement Services Advisory Council, and Co-Chairs the NSW Joint Partnership Working Group coordinating the NSW component of the additional intake of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Born in Bankstown in the late 1950s to economic migrants from post-WWII, fleeing civil war in Greece, Roumeliotis’s family arrived in Australia in the mid-1950s seeking a better life. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, the socio-demographic of Bankstown was mostly southern Mediterranean families – like her parents. By the time Roumeliotis graduated from Bankstown Girls High School, more Vietnamese families moved to the area during and post-Vietnam War, and more recently, a wave of Lebanese and Middle Eastern immigration has further enhanced the rich multicultural tapestry of the area. These early migrant experiences shaped Roumeliotis’s ideas of personal morality and challenged her notions of identity and cultural inclusion.

“My father couldn’t pursue his education or his chosen profession from Greece so, together with my mother, he turned to what was the chosen salvation of many Greeks at that time: the corner shop. They were very active community leaders, mortgaging the family home to buy land to build the first Greek Orthodox Church in Bankstown, the area where we lived. That is now a vibrant parish with adjoining primary and high schools. Seeing them participate in their local community, nurturing relationships and their cultural heritage, while integrating important components of their lives into mainstream Australia, was very rewarding for me. However, I also saw the other side. Due to a lack of strong English language skills and working hard to survive in a new country, my parents, relatives and our community were invisible to mainstream society. As a child, I filled in forms for relatives, helped during doctors’ visits, and accompanied my dad to the chambers of the magistrate when there was trouble in the shop and police didn’t respond. Growing up in that environment, instilled in me a deep belief that every person should have the right to meet their full potential and live the life they want to live. This is what inspired me to commit my personal and professional life to the pursuit of social justice,” says Roumeliotis.

After working on a number of boards in a pro bono capacity of women’s services, legal services, health, multicultural and mainstream organisations – all of which had a social justice mission and imperative, Roumeliotis says her career has been deeply rewarding, and formative.

Violet Roumeliotis, Settlement Services International, Joanne Leila Smith, SSI, Refugees, Asylum Seekers, INDVSTRVS

“The experience of my parents and others that I met as a new graduate working in case management has always reminded me of the importance of walking in other people’s shoes and trying to understand their perspective; to always have a positive and optimistic frame of mind and to treat all people with the dignity and respect that they deserve. My parents and many of the communities I’ve worked with have taught me that humility is a very underrated attribute and it goes a long way in making things happen for the benefit of others and the common good,” says Roumeliotis.

With over thirty years’ experience in governance, human resources and financial management, Roumeliotis graduated from UNSW with a BA majoring in Sociology and History, a Masters in Management from UTS, and is a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD).

After steering SSI through a dramatic growth period, from a staff of less than 70 in 2014 to over 500 in 2017, Roumeliotis says the biggest factors contributing to SSI’s growth was diversifying its funding base to ensure sustainability. Over the past three years, SSI secured new program areas that are of a priority value to its constituency including the Settlement Support Program, ParentsNext, Community Hubs, Youth@Work, and an employment services program as well as three related social enterprises.

“Over this period, we transformed our organisational structure and legal entity so that SSI is better placed to diversify and grow its services, in line with our strategic plan that we are currently devising for 2017-2020. We have strengthened our governance and have secured accreditation in key areas to ensure the standard of our service. Our work is purposeful and targeted, which has enabled us to secure new contracts that expand our reach and provide support to more communities in Australia. Our model of operation allows for sub-contracting of resources to local organisations and our members and this decentralised model allows sustainability for smaller organisations and a local focus for service delivery and capacity building. But we’re not undertaking growth for growth’s sake; we’ve been very thoughtful in our diversification. We now, for example, provide support to people with disability through the Ability Links NSW program. At a macro level, this might appear to be quite different to our flagship Humanitarian Settlement Services program, which delivers initial settlement support to newly arrived refugees, but both programs reinforce our organisational mission of helping vulnerable people. Our strategic plan to 2020 will see SSI embark on its next stage of growth, while also staying true to our commitment to support vulnerable community members,” says Roumeliotis.

One major program established in 2013 was SSI’s self-funded Ignite Small Business Start-ups initiative to support fledgling refugee entrepreneurs to establish or expand their own small businesses. After recognising significant entrepreneurial potential in the refugee community, SSI helps new arrivals to tap into that potential and overcome barriers such as a lack of knowledge about local business laws and practices.

Since inception, Ignite has supported the establishment of 66 new businesses, with the help of business mentors, Ignite enterprise facilitators and volunteers from the local community.

A recent evaluation report from a sample group of 35 entrepreneurs with Ignite conservatively estimates that helping to establish their businesses has saved AUD 880K worth of Centrelink payments per year; a saving of more than AUD 4 million over four years.

Using this model, SSI expanded this concept and established IgniteAbility in 2017 for up-and-coming entrepreneurs living with disability. To date, 14 entrepreneurs are working with SSI’s enterprise facilitators.

“This project matters to people with disability because it sets them on the path towards meaningful employment and the stability, security and independence that comes with it. This has huge ramifications for an individual’s wellbeing and sense of belonging and identity. Similarly to the refugee community, people living with disability actually have higher rates of entrepreneurship than people living without disability. All we’re doing is offering the support to help entrepreneurs with disability overcome the barriers they face. We expect equally dramatic results when we get IgniteAbility up and running,” says Roumeliotis.

Roumeliotis says that while small businesses take time to achieve profitability, already a sizeable portion of these businesses have reported a profit. The overwhelming majority of Ignite graduates (68 percent) are no longer receiving Centrelink payments.

One such example is Ignite entrepreneur, Nirary Dacho. In cooperation with his business partner, Anna Robson, Dacho has developed Refugee Talent – a web-based platform designed to connect refugees with work opportunities that align with their skills and experience. Not only is Refugee Talent now a successful business, it’s helping other refugees to overcome one of the barriers to entering the Australian workforce: a lack of local work experience.

“You just have to look through our Ignite Business Directory to see this is one of just many examples of refugees who are achieving wonderful outcomes as a result of this initiative,” says Roumeliotis.

For Roumeliotis, her work at SSI means finding innovative ways to support individuals and families to fulfil their potential. It means collaborating with communities to empower vulnerable community members to achieve independence. It means always keeping front of mind social justice, diversity, compassion and respect – and educating the broader community on how they can make a difference.

Violet Roumeliotis, Settlement Services International, Joanne Leila Smith, SSI, Refugees, Asylum Seekers, INDVSTRVS
“Integration is a two-way street. To achieve social cohesion, everyday Australians need to ask themselves, ‘what can I do to help my new neighbours’ fit in and feel welcome here?’ Regardless of what kind of support you offer, what is important is that we all play a part in helping new arrivals to feel welcomed in the Australian community. Helping refugees to successfully settle in Australia drastically improves their quality of life. But it also benefits the broader Australian community when our new neighbours go on to make a meaningful social and economic contribution,” says Roumeliotis. “Many refugees have experienced great hardship in their home countries and suffer from psychological trauma from torture, war and separation from family. Despite the resilience of refugees and the significant contributions they make to Australia, they often need tailored support to overcome the effects of their experiences, and we work very closely with STARTTS to support the health of newly arrived refugees in NSW”.

Australia’s secretive, off-shore immigration detention camps on Manus, Nauru and Christmas Island has drawn international condemnation from the United Nations, as well as inspiring a stage play in Tehran, Iran titled Manus in early 2017 – which depicts the murder of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati at the Manus Island detention camp fuels perceptions that Australia may be very hostile to asylum seekers in the international community.  While SSI deals exclusively with the on-shore component of the Australian Government’s immigration program, Roumeliotis says that any negative sentiment about refugees who settle in Australia has largely been contained to the comments section of news articles or the occasional response from a caller on talkback radio.

“In SSI’s experience, Australians’ views and actions towards refugees have been overwhelmingly positive. Since the announcement of the additional intake of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq we have received many unsolicited donations and offers of help from community, school and religious groups, who have watched the humanitarian crisis unfolding globally and want to do something to help. That’s not to say there aren’t pockets of discontent; we get the odd Facebook message accusing SSI of ‘not looking after our own’. That argument seems to rely on the idea that caring for refugees and for Australian-born citizens are mutually exclusive concepts, completely ignoring the services SSI offers to the long-term unemployed and people in need of emergency housing. But those are isolated incidents and I don’t believe they’re reflective of the general community feeling towards refugees. Australia is a multicultural nation that values diversity. We don’t just notice our differences – we celebrate them,” says Roumeliotis.

For Roumeliotis, the key message she wished the greater community would understand about refugees is that no one chooses to be a refugee or to endure unimaginable hardships outside of their control. However, refugees are more than their stories of travail – they are regular people, from all walks of life.

“I wish that people would look beyond labels like ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ to see people who are just like you or I; people who, through no fault of their own, have been forced to leave behind friends, family, communities – everything they hold dear. No-one chooses to become a refugee. It’s a decision that is forced upon them. There’s no opportunity to plan your departure, to say goodbye to the people you love. You can’t return to the place of your childhood. Refugees and people seeking asylum are more than just their stories of loss and hardship. They are doctors, mothers, teachers and farmers – war and persecution doesn’t discriminate based on your social or economic status. They have come to our shores in search of safety and a new beginning. It’s incumbent on all of us to welcome new arrivals and to think about what we can do to help our newest community members get up on their feet again,” says Roumeliotis.

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