Readying refugees for when natural disasters strike

Farid Farid |

Zakariah Omar and Sam Savage deliver disaster resilience training for refugees in Townsville.
Zakariah Omar and Sam Savage deliver disaster resilience training for refugees in Townsville.

Growing up in a sprawling Kenyan refugee camp, Zakariah Omar had to rebuild his and his neighbours’ homes every six months when floods and strong winds destroyed their tent and mudbrick houses.

He had arrived in the Kakuma refugee camp at the age of three after his family fled the Somali war in the early 1990s.

For the next 25 years, as he waited for a humanitarian visa to get to Australia, he and his family survived in that cycle of having to rebuild what nature tore down.

A group of people sitting  in a circle.
Zakariah Omar and Sam Savage delivering disaster resilience training to refugees in Townsville. (Supplied/AAP PHOTOS)

As much as it was a dispiriting process, it gave Mr Omar, now 37, the resiliency that has allowed him to understand how to help refugee communities handle natural disasters in his home of Townsville where cyclones and floods are an ever-present reality.

He had only been in Australia for four years when an active Whatsapp group became the lifeline to save Somali community members from drowning in the 2019 Townsville floods, which damaged about 5000 properties in the north Queensland city with the insurance bill topping $1.2 billion

“If that area had flooding and we know someone lives there with a lot of kids, we would send people who are good swimmers to bring them to higher ground,” he told AAP.

“This is our main form of communication as a community. It’s used if someone is in the hospital, if there’s a disaster or a security risk or even weddings and celebrations.”

Recognising the gaps in disaster management information, the disability services director and founder of refugee advocacy group Open Hands has partnered with the Australian Red Cross to empower other refugees about how to be disaster ready.

“Training with the Red Cross is very useful because there’s a lot of keywords like cyclone, evacuation zones, recovery centres and shelter we didn’t understand,” he said.

Sam Savage, a proud descendant of Birrigubba Nation and Manuar Island in the Torres Strait, works with the Australian Red Cross to deliver the training sessions with the aid of volunteers in various languages including Arabic, French, Karen, Somali and Swahili.

The project is run in Townsville, Rockhampton and south east Queensland – all areas which have been hit by devastating floods in recent years – targeting migrant and refugee groups.

“I always say the groups aren’t vulnerable. It was the systems that are vulnerable, that make them more risk-averse to not getting the support and not being aware of what they need to know in being better prepared,” Mr Savage, the Red Cross’ regional co-ordinator, said.

With funding from the state government, the information sessions cover a range of topics from packing important possessions in a pillowcase to heeding warning signals from emergency services on the radio and finding evacuation centres to shelter in.

“Most of the communities that come from, either a migrant or refugee background, they’re pretty resilient from already having to tackle their previous situations they’ve fled from,” he said.

“So it was more around adapting to the local (weather) events now that we have experienced.”

Mr Savage said one of the keys had been identifying local champions within the community to provide the messaging – and that was where Mr Omar came in.

Shefali Lakhina, founder of the California-based climate justice think-tank Wonder Labs, has conducted extensive research into how disaster management policy in Australia would benefit from the input of refugee and migrant communities.

“Many people from refugee backgrounds have been on the front lines of disaster impacts around the world and they have much to contribute to how to think about resilience outcomes,” she said.

From her research in NSW, she found that newly arrived refugees in natural diasters are more vulnerable because of language and accessibility barriers, housing insecurity and lack of social connections.

Dr Lakhina advocates for policies that are CARE-oriented, meaning collaborative, accountable, responsive and empowering.

“This could mean providing people from refugee backgrounds with timely and relevant hazard and risk information, access to safe and secure housing and culturally appropriate support to prepare their homes and families for daily and seasonal hazards,” she noted.

Drawing on his experience as a displaced person most of his life, Mr Omar is keenly aware of the challenges new refugees face such as those from the Central African Republic who have to come to Australia in the last five years.

“The best thing you’ll learn from the refugee camp is human capital,” he said.

“You have to invest in your friends and community to work together so whatever happens, you have emotional and physical support.”