The friend refugees need

1 May 2018

Violet Roumeliotis

Photo: Violet Roumeliotis

UTS graduate Violet Roumeliotis’s mission to help refugees in Australia is turning heads for combining good business with social justice.

Ginger George arrived in Australia as a refugee from Syria at the age of 23. Years later, he was invited to a private girls’ school to give a talk about the refugee experience.

He asked the girls, “What do you think a refugee needs when they arrive?”

“Food,” said one student.

“A home.”

“A job,” chimed another.

“Nope,” he says. Recalling his first lonely days struggling to find ways to fit in with his new community, he explains, “A refugee needs friends.”

The story of Ginger George is but one of thousands that Settlement Services International (SSI) Chief Executive Violet Roumeliotis draws upon to explain the crucial support her organisation provides to refugees who have resettled in Australia.

It is a story not too unlike her own. The daughter of Greek immigrants who came to Australia in the 1950s, Roumeliotis was given the task of filling out forms and attending doctor’s appointments with her parents due to their limited English. In doing so, she witnessed a generation that was essentially ignored; solicitors and other professionals ignored her parents and spoke only with her, as though she were the adult. As she matured, she realised the need for a system that allows immigrants to pursue their desired careers and reach their full potential.

“At SSI, we provide professional case management for up to 18 months,” says Roumeliotis. That includes headleasing a new home on behalf of a refugee client, escorting them to that home from the airport, helping them register for essential services such as Medicare and Centrelink, and introducing them to the local community so that they can make new social and cultural connections.

It can also involve practical support for things like applying for a bank account or showing them where ATMs are, enrolling their children at school, working with unions to help them enter the workforce, or showing them where they can buy halal meat. SSI presently works with 45 different partners and collaborators to bring all of these elements together.

Roumeliotis assumed the role of SSI’s Chief Executive in 2012, a year after completing a Master of Management in Community Management at UTS. She has since grown its revenue from $9 million a year to $110 million. In the past 18 months alone, SSI has helped more than 1,185 refugees find work. These achievements were singled out for recognition when she was named the 2017 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year.

"The combination of Hatchery and my work in the industry gave me such an edge when I was completing my masters."

“There was no infrastructure,” Roumeliotis recalls of her early days at SSI. “I knew, in the past, SSI had one contract that it had lost and it was five years in abeyance. We won that contract back from a for-profit organisation, but we knew that we could not afford to stick with one contract.”

From there, she created a strategic vision for the organisation, and focused on developing high-performing teams to support it, building trust and strategic relationships with the community and other organisations.

“Our values are very important. We wanted to grow and diversify, but we didn’t want to be predatory. We wanted to be in partnership and to collaborate,” explains Roumeliotis. “I think one of our great strengths is we have staff that have qualifications, many of them not recognised in Australia, and who’ve worked in other countries. They’ve arrived as refugees themselves or as migrants, and they have a great interest and passion to give something back.”

Her approach is considered relatively innovative in the field (“the inherent value of the ‘third sector’ is very much neglected in the mainstream,” she says), and she credits her time at UTS with giving her many of the formative lessons that she took into SSI.

“Being able to attend a course that actually shows the value of working in the third sector, the great economic, social and cultural benefits that it brings; having the extraordinary tools and competencies you need to be an effective practitioner in that area; understanding the importance of having a values-driven approach; and marrying it to the MBA story of efficiency and getting great outcomes … for me, that’s very inspiring.”

Roumeliotis hopes to use her award from Telstra as an opportunity to generate a national conversation about breaking stereotypes around welfare work.

“When I was younger, I used to say it was punishable by death if you ever said anything nice about a bureaucrat or the corporate world. We were very much like activists,” she laughs. “UTS and the master’s course has done extraordinary good to help us mature into a sophisticated sector that has something to offer other than the stereotypes that still do happen, unfortunately.

“There are still people in government or corporate bodies who think the sector is voluntary and inefficient. And on the other side, our sector still thinks that corporates are predatory and not in any way values-driven. I’d like to think I am playing a key role in breaking down those stereotypes.”

She also wants to connect Telstra Business Award alumni with other women in her sector. “It’s important to have a mentor or a group of people with whom you can say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of doing this, what do you think of it?’”

Roumeliotis had a mentor in her early years, and “I’m sure some of the questions I’d ask were very stupid, but she’d never make me feel like they were stupid questions. She was generous with her time.”

These days, Roumeliotis is mentoring three women and keeps counsel with a coach, while bouncing ideas with a group of peers. “I love having people around me who think differently, and have ideas that are outrageously different from my own that we can test, find common ground, and move forward.”

She also hopes SSI can influence national and global policy around refugees, asylum seekers and migration.

“A lot of media attention goes towards the Australian policy around asylum seekers and offshore detention, but not a lot of attention is given to the refugees that we do resettle. Migration scholars from around the world will tell you that Australia is best practice, and they do come here to study best practice,” observes Roumeliotis. “There’s so much more we can learn from our global brothers and sisters, and the many NGOs that resettle refugees across the world.”

Reflecting on the experiences of her father, who passed away in 1990, Roumeliotis confesses, “My parents would’ve benefited very much from these services. Dad was a man who felt he never belonged in Australia. He worked in a business that he didn’t really want to because he had no other option. He used to tell me it’s very important to get an education, that no one can take it from me, and said I can be whatever I want to be. It’s such a cliché, but it’s true. And I have a great sadness that my dad didn’t live the life that he wanted.

“We have an opportunity to change the national conversation around the economic benefits of migration to this country. We should be proud of what we’ve achieved. We’re not perfect, but we have people who value their citizenship, and for generations have, irrelevant of where they’re born, shown themselves to be good people and good Australians. Let’s lift the conversation, be aspirational and wise, and move forward positively.”

Byline: Kevin Cheung