“Like a lion trapped in a paper cage”

Summer Lea writes about her experiences with women’s crisis housing.

My name is Summer and I would like to share my story.

Like many of you currently reading this newspaper, I am now a successful young person, studying for a degree at the University of Sydney.

Recently, I was asked to speak at the vigil to raise awareness about cuts to women’s crisis’ housing services.

I spoke about how a young women’s’ refuge, staffed by women, played an essential role in my journey from abused, heartbroken and homeless teenager to young independent student and part-time worker.

Women need refuges but the state government is threatening to streamline services for homeless people into a one-size-fits-all model with its “Going home, staying home” reforms.

This could mean that small, individualised services for women, run by women, would be under threat.

Abused women fleeing domestic violence could wind up in accommodation with homeless men, run by male workers.

My personal story is a testimony to the need for women only services. I believe my journey to the life I have now was far from typical for a student enrolled at this university.

Being a child of a refugee is tough; transgenerational trauma seems to descend throughout the generations in refugee families.

My story started a long time before I was born. It started during the Vietnam War, which brought endless turmoil and suffering to people like my parents. It had a terrible impact on my mother. One summer’s day when my mother was 10, she was playing with her baby brother who was 8 months old in her front yard. Suddenly a bomb dropped from nowhere into the yard and killed her brother instantly. I’m sure such an experience contributed to her developing schizophrenia as an adult. My dad was also profoundly affected by terrible experiences during the Vietnam War. My grandfather was conscripted into warfare to fight with the American troops in order to protect the South Vietnamese unifying with the North, which was a communist nation. He was affected terribly by his war service, that affected the life of my father and then, in turn, I was affected too.

My parents escaped Vietnam after getting married and decided to seek asylum in Australia. It was a journey of constant danger, change and uncertainty. On arrival in Australia, they lived in Marrickville as this was the place where most Vietnamese refugees were settle, before it became gentrified and before it was full of university students. The only work that was available for Vietnamese refugees was tailoring and mass-producing garments for chain stores like David Jones and Grace Brothers. They were paid $1 for each coat manufactured.

Some refugee families found a new life of optimism in a new country; however, this was not the case in my family. My home was a battlefield.

My parents had no capacity to offer the love and security that all children need. I was always envious of my friends with loving families. I still believe to this day, that love, in any form, is a fantasy, a figment of my own imagination and an unreachable dream, so far away from reality.

In my mid teens, I was permanently removed from my family. I wanted a better life for myself. A life I thought was worth living.

The Department of Community Services (DOCS) was never much help in resolving our family problems. I really got the most help from a small, non-government organisation called Barnardo’s. They assisted me in leaving home safely.

I was now able to live on the other side of fear.

What followed was a series of refuges, foster homes, and boarding arrangements. My first placement in a refuge was really what gave me the skills and empowerment to cope with the difficult path to adulthood.

I was like a lion trapped in a paper cage.

A young woman ready to take on the world but there were many barriers that I faced in these young, independent years.

The first refuge I went to after being removed from my family was a Young People’s Refuge in Leichhardt, a women’s refuge. This is one of the services that are under threat with recent state government reforms.

During my stay at this home I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The workers were great role models who provided me with counseling in order to cope with the traumas that haunted me. They helped me develop my life skills in a holistic way, quite specific to being a woman. They also helped me in accessing other services, with the biggest goal of achieving long-term accommodation.

Importantly, I was in a safe environment for young females who needed to be in a gender specific service for a while. The refuge taught me skills, which equipped me to cope with the world of foster homes, and all the changes I had to face as a teenager my own. My experiences demonstrate the effectiveness of small-individualised services.

Unfortunately, none of my foster homes lasted long so I became a nomad.

I never fully unpacked my suitcase, knowing that I was inevitably going to leave soon. The constant change and upheaval created its own trauma and feelings of insecurity. While I was in foster care I experienced the lifestyles of rich and poor, multicultural, and gay and lesbian family households.

As much I as I’d like to be able to go back and have Sunday lunch with any of my families, this is not feasible for me. I never found a family who loved me enough to call me their own or essential part of their lives.

“Summer’s foundations feel like they are built from sand, they are not solid.”

Maybe one day that sand will turn into concrete.

To this day, I haven’t told many of my friends this story. I longed for so much of what my friends had. I wanted to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, preserving my privacy and dignity. I didn’t want to be perceived as different to friends who were being raised in loving, middle-class homes. I didn’t want to be stigmatised, like so many, for using women’s refuges and for being homeless. I kept everything secret.

Behind my smiles, was a broken heart and behind my laughter, I was falling apart… up until the point I saw that glimmer of hope and saw a life worth living.

I write this article as a call to arms – to bring awareness to everyone of how truly life can be for some of us and to build the fire in our hearts to take a call of action against government reforms. Some of us are lost in the fire, but some us are built from it and will continue to keep fighting.

Across Australia wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and children can find themselves in need of a safe place where their gender and ethnicity will be recognised and respected, a place to go when their homes are no longer safe. We should always be aware that anyone, from any social background, could have experienced this.

In such circumstances, we need a robust safety net of social welfare that can cushion the fall and allow a safe place from which people can rebuild their lives. Women’s refuges were created by women, for women. They’ve been working well, so why destroy them? The new plan is one-size-fits-all, but one size doesn’t fit all. There is talk about eliminating “red tape”, but we need to value and maintain the good things that are already happening. At the end of the day, people who use these services are more likely to go on to rebuild their lives and support their communities, just like me. Surely, this is an outcome that a wealthy nation like Australia should be aspiring to achieve.

I believe some women are lost in the fire; however, some women are built from it….