North America

'Mateship': Aussie expats pair with Manus, Nauru refugees in US


The volunteers say it's the least they can do for those who were refused entry to their homeland.

Refugees formerly held in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru are being paired with more than 300 Australian expats living in the US.

The Aussie Diaspora Steps Up network (Ads-Up) was set up to provide assistance, mateship and financial assistance to refugees transferred to the country under the US-Australia refugee deal.

In just two months the group has reached out to more than 130 refugees across the US, including Pyae Sone Aung, a Burmese Muslim from Myanmar who was on Manus Island for five years.

Tom Burmester and Pyae Sone Aung
Australian expat Tom Burmester and former Manus Island detainee Pyae Sone Aung watch a World Cup game in Portland.

'We were like animals'

Mr Aung was part of a wave of refugees to be transferred to the US in early 2018. After arriving in Los Angles under uncertain circumstances, he moved to Portland, Oregon, where he now shares an apartment with a fellow Manus refugee. 

"I'm really happy with the move [to the US], it's much better here," he told SBS News.

"On Manus, all we did was eat and sleep, eat and sleep, that's all. We were like animals, but then animals have rights."

Mr Aung has been matched with Ads-Up volunteers Eleri Harris and Tom Burmester, a married couple from Canberra who now live in Portland.

Eleri Harris and Tom Burmester
Ads-Up volunteers Eleri Harris and Tom Burmester moved from Canberra to Portland.

They say they quickly formed a relationship with the former detainee and wanted to offer as much assistance as possible to help him settle in the US. 

"We've managed to catch up a bunch of times, we've caught a couple of World Cup games together and had coffees together," Mr Burmester said. 

"It's been a nice opportunity to meet him and be his mate, and offer support where I can. 

"He wants to get into community college, work on his English and other skills. He's really determined and a switched-on guy. He will be great in Portland and he would have great in Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra too." 

He will be great in Portland and he would have great in Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra too. 

- Ads-Up volunteer Tom Burmester

Initial hesitations that the former detainee would be adverse to connecting with Australians were quickly put to rest.

"He's been so positive towards us and it's been great to extend what is the value of mateship with someone that didn't get it from his first encounter with Australians."

'A good thing to do'

Another Australian expat, Alex Sherack, was matched with former Nauru detainee Mohammad Ayes following his resettlement in Philadelphia.

After seeing the ad a few times [on Facebook] I thought why not? Why not reach out to someone that has recently moved to Philly … that might be looking for work ... need help with opening bank accounts [and] just culturally fitting in," Mr Sherack said. 

"Having a refugee that’s been recently settled from an area that was affected by Australian politics, I thought it was a fairly good thing to do."

Mohammad Ayes and Alex Sherack
Refugee Mohammad Ayes and Australian expat Alex Sherack in Philadelphia.

Refugee Mr Ayes, who is originally from Myanmar, said he was keen to dispell the negative perception of Australians by those detained offshore.

“No it's wrong thing. We really love Australian people, they are all supporters for us, some people I saw in the video crying for us.

We really love Australian people, they are all supporters for us. 

- Former Nauru detainee Mohammad Ayes

"I really [thankful] to the Australian people [and] the Australian government because they save us from the ocean, we are dying from there ... God bless the Australian people."

'Filling the gap'

Ads-Up was set-up by Australian expats Fleur Wood and Ben Winsor, who both live in New York.

“It’s not an easy time to be a refugee in the United States,” Mr Winsor said.

“The support agencies which are meant to help them have had their funding slashed and are closing offices, so making sure we can raise the funds to fill that gap is really important. We expect the number of people needing urgent assistance to increase as more families are transferred to the USA.”

Co-founders Ben Winsor and Fleur Wood
Ads-Up co-founders Ben Winsor and Fleur Wood.

Mr Winsor said he had witnessed several instances where refugees weren't able to afford the costs incurred by their transfer.

“Refugees are expected to repay the costs of their flights from Manus and Nauru, so it can be pretty stressful for them,” he said. 

“We had a situation where a family of six was facing eviction after a social security screw-up meant they fell behind on their rent. We were able to step in and make sure they had a roof over their heads."

The group has so far raised more than $10,000 through its GoFundMe page.

Thursday marks five years since the Australian government began sending asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru. 

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