“You can call in to the office and I will tell you all about the program; or you can brave the noise of sixty kids having fun and see for yourself what happens at our weekly gathering”. This was the invitation extended to Judy Cain from the JWF Melbourne Branch on a recent visit to the North Coast of NSW from Dianne Jacobus, Project Worker for STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) in Coffs Harbour. Without hesitation she decided a visit to the local Guide Hall to meet some of the young people was too good to miss.

Coffs Harbour is one of four Refugee Settlement locations in NSW and STARTTS is a key organisation providing support services in that area. For the past 4½ years Dianne, with the help of workers from Groundworks Youth Service and volunteers, has run a weekly program for young people using music, ball games and small group activities to build connections amongst the group and with youth workers. The program was instigated following discussions with young refugees at a STARTTS youth camp. They indicated to Dianne that they needed somewhere safe to hang out with each other and share their stories of transition into a new culture.

Staff and participants in the STARTTS Weekly youth group (L – R) Amina, Matt, Hilary, Dianne, Samson, Innocent, and Judy Cain JWF Melbourne Branch member.

The original group of 14 were mostly from African countries but the number of regular attendees has grown to 65 with newly arrived young people from Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Iraq now joining in. They come from 8 different schools in the area and stay for up to 2½ hours after school. A few older members have now finished school but still turn up to catch up with their friends and chat with Dianne and other adult workers.

The John Wallis Foundation has provided STARTTS with a grant of $3,000 to increase the well-being and leadership skills for young refugees. A number of natural leaders have emerged. A recent camp in Newcastle provided opportunities for participants to get to know each other better and contribute to the overall success of the camp.

On the afternoon of Judy’s visit, the Marketing Officer from the City of Coffs Harbour dropped by to explain plans for a new gallery and library and invite comments from the young people. It is a measure of Dianne’s faith and confidence in these lively, articulate and resilient young people that other agencies now seek their opinions and provide support for their activities. It is no mean feat that Dianne has also built a trusting relationship with their parents and younger brothers and sisters are hankering to join the group.