A cornerstone of Australian national identity and pride revolves around the "mateship" narrative; the notion of support, loyalty and friendship despite even the broadest of social, political or religious differences. It is about helping people, even people you don't know, in any way you can.
And, while you may be able to take the Aussie out of Australia, you can’t take the Australian notion of mateship out of the Aussie.
It was this belief of mateship that spurred the creation of Australian Diaspora Steps Up, an initiative that aims to connect refugees arriving in the United States from Australia's offshore detention centres Manus and Nauru with an Australian expat "buddy"; someone who could help them start a new life by offering support, friendship and guidance.
Since the programs launch two months ago, more than 300 Australian expats have signed up; approximately one for each Manus or Nauru refugee settled in the US since September. The assistance offered has meant refugees have a guiding hand when attempting to find employment and accommodation and are better able to navigate the nation's complex health care and social security systems.
Journalist Ben Winsor and fashion designer Fleur Wood, two Australians living in New York, founded the group by sending out Facebook ads to the approximately 100,000 Australians living in America.
"The idea was, we've moved here, we've learnt how to navigate the bureaucracy, maybe we can help other people when they arrive," Winsor told the ABC. The need for the initiative was further spurred during Winsors journalistic research on the tumultuous journey refugees face living in Manus and Nauru. “As I was writing these stories I was thinking, I wish someone was helping these people a bit more. It is such an abrupt thing to come to America after five years on Manus or Nauru and to be on your own. It is very startling for some people."
Australian expats within the Australian Diaspora Steps Up initiative have managed to converse with landlords to stop the eviction of refugee families if they fall behind on rent and have secured free dental and medical work for those in need. In the future, the program hopes to raise enough money to cover the study expenses of refugees.
According to Winsor, above everything else the emotional connection is the most appreciated.
"Some of these refugees are 20 or 21, and they arrive in a small town where there might be no other refugees or anyone else from their country. To have a friendly face, someone who cares about them, it's meaningful."
Thanks to people like Mohammad Noor and Maree De Marco for sharing their stories!https://t.co/Z1Uf6x9M97— Refugee Council (@OzRefugeeCounc) July 20, 2018
Australian expat Maree de Marco, who now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, heard of the program and thought to herself, “I am an immigrant myself so I could definitely help someone in the same situation.'"
She was paired with Mohammad Noor, a refugee who had just arrived in Salt Lake City after fleeing violence in Myanmar and spending five years locked on Manus Island.
"Sometimes we survived without water, without food for days. My family's village was burnt down and I had no way of contacting them. I thought I would be stuck there forever,” Noor told the Sydney Morning Herald.
"This is the first time for me living in a place of freedom. I'm so excited to be here."
For de Marco, ensuring Noor knew the policies of the Australian government were not representative of the viewpoint of all Australian people was vital.
"If I was in his shoes I would be thinking, 'Australia really doesn't like me'. I wanted him to know that some of us would open our arms to refugees.”
The 300 Manus and Nauru refugees settled in America are thanks to the Australian-US deal struck between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former US President Barack Obama in November 2016. The majority of the refugees come from Myanmar, South Asia and the Middle East.
Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
In the aftermath of the deal, US President Donald Trump announced the decision to be the “worst deal ever." Refugees from Iran and Afghanistan on Manus and Nauru have predominantly had their settlement visas denied due to Trump’s new immigration ban on refugees from Muslim-majority nations.
"I think it is ridiculous and Obama should have never signed it. The only reason I will take them is because I have to honor a deal signed by my predecessor and it was a rotten deal."
Amnesty International believes Australia's long criticised stringent immigration laws mean around 700 refugees and asylum seekers remain imprisoned in the offshore detention centres, after five years in limbo.
Regardless of politics, for any refugee who arrives in the US, an Aussie will always be there to lend a helping hand.