Refuges are Vital

Summer Lea talks about her experience.

Summer Lea talks about her experience.

My name is Summer and, like many of you reading this newspaper, I am a successful young person studying for a degree at the University of Sydney.

I was recently asked to speak at the vigil to raise awareness about cuts to Women’s Crisis Services.

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

Without this refuge I would not be in the fortunate position I find myself in today which is why I am outraged to hear the Government is planning changes which will threaten these amazing organisations.

Minister for Family Services, Brad Hazzard recently stated he/she wants to streamline services for homeless people into a one-size-fits-all model with “Going home, staying home” reforms. If this happens abused women fleeing domestic violence could wind up in accommodation with homeless men and male workers.

My personal story is testimony of how important it is to keep women only services. The story started a long time before I was born 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 she was 10 she was playing with her baby brother who was eight 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 War. My grandfather was conscripted into warfare to fight alongside American troops and he returned a changed man. His actions after the War affected the life of my father and, in turn, that affected me.

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 they lived in Marrickville as this was the place most Vietnamese refugees were settled. The only work available was tailoring and mass-producing garments for chain stores like David Jones and Grace Brothers. They were paid one dollar for each coat manufactured.

Some refugee families found a new life of optimism in their new country; however, this was not the case for my family. My home was a battlefield. My parents had no capacity to offer the love and security all children need. I was always envious of my friends with loving families. I still believe to this day love, in any form, is a fantasy and an unreachable dream.

In my mid-teens I was permanently removed from my family after suffering years of horrifying abuse in all forms. I wanted a better life for myself… one that was worth living.

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

What followed was a series of refuges, foster homes and boarding arrangements. My first placement was at a Young People’s Refuge in Leichhardt from women. This is what really gave me the skills and empowerment to cope with the difficult path to adulthood. Unfortunately it is places like this which are under threat from the proposed 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 counselling in order to cope with the traumas which haunted me. The women helped me develop life skills in a holistic way specific to being a woman. They also helped me in accessing other services, but most 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 the 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 an essential part of their lives.

A carer once said, “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 smile was a broken heart and behind my laughter I was crumbling until I saw that glimmer of hope and a life worth living.

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. We should always be aware that anyone, from any social background, could experience 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. People who use women’s refuges 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.

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