Refugee mentoring: the comfort of strangers
With more than 68.5 million refugees globally, integrating refugees into receiving communities is a key concern. Australia’s refugee settlement policy rests on the three Es: English, employment and education. But this approach does not address social, emotional or ontological security needs, nor does it acknowledge the desire of the local community to connect with their new neighbours. My study investigates the bonds between refugees and local people in Australia, via an examination of three urban refugee mentoring programs, that link trained volunteers with an individual refugee or refugee family. A key question this study considers is the extent to which mentoring programs assist refugees in forming meaningful relationships with their local communities. Drawing on a transdisciplinary approach that privileges everyday life, this thesis engages in empirical scholarship through interviews with refugees, mentors and mentor coordinators through an online mentor survey and ethnographic research conducted in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide.
On an interpersonal level, this thesis explores rich long-term mentoring relationships, and nuanced accounts are given of these bonds. This research contributes to contemporary scholarship on intercultural encounter and explores how asymmetrical power relationships can be enacted through contact programs such as refugee mentoring. The study reveals that many mentors reconcile their frustration at government refugee and asylum seeker policies by engaging in mentoring in what I call a “quiet act of civil defiance”. I propose a typology of mentoring bonds that ranges from fragile to immersive and argue that an ethic-of-care approach offers hope, comfort and welcome to refugees in the face of government and institutional inaction.
On an institutional level, paradigms of mentoring are investigated and three distinct models are identified, including biopolitical subjects, an ethic of care and cosmopolitan encounters, which attempt to prescribe the nature of relationships. Judgemental attitudes to English language skills lead to a “language pedestal paradox” where refugees face demands for English proficiency without adequate support to acquire it. Empirical evidence offers insights into warm contact spaces, such as libraries, to illustrate how the personal capacities and ontological security of refugees can be increased. These spaces offer warmth in the sense of care encountered by refugees. The thesis calls for programs to move beyond romanticised notions of intercultural contact to embrace the unpredictable and contradictory nature of these relationships. I argue that deeper understanding of intercultural, social and spatial relations involves recognition of the importance of relational bonds. Underlining intercultural relationships must be recognition of the importance of social bridges between refugees and their new communities.