Over the past sixty years, the Adult Multicultural Education Services (AMES) has been providing a comprehensive range of services to refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. Each year it serves about 50,000 clients. Newly arrived Greek migrants, especially from the Oakleigh area, have been recipients of AMES’ programs and have benefitted from its strength-based approach that recognises people’s strengths and ability to pursue positive outcomes in life. However, a large proportion of newly arrived Greek migrants are not aware of AMES’ full spectrum of services and programs and an even bigger proportion is not aware of AMES’ fundamental contribution to Australia’s immigration and inclusion policy.

In this interview, Catherine Scarth, AMES’ CEO, contributes to the wider discussion around immigration, sharing her expertise in immigration policies. She told us about AMES’ services for newly arrived (Greek) migrants and spoke about the organisation’s efforts to empower and connect migrants with other services, and promote a ‘sense of belonging’. In the first part of this interview, she expands on the hot issue of migrant and asylum seeker employment and speaks about the importance of social capital, the Australian experience and the strengths-based approach that AMES uses to create opportunities for immigrants and asylum seekers.

In the second part to follow, Catherine takes us back through AMES’ 60 year-long journey in providing migrant support services, and gives us a snapshot of the country’s integration model policy and its shift from assimilation towards social inclusion and cohesion policies.

In these all-encompassing interviews, Catherine Scarth also expresses her views on the immigration, citizenship, and inclusion triptych which has received a lot of media coverage, reflecting her organisation’s philosophy. As AMES has lost a large portion of its Adult Migrant English Program last summer and experienced one of its most difficult times in recent history, Catherine also speaks to us about the importance of resilience and ways to cope with disappointment.

CEO of AMES Australia, Catherine Scarth.

Many people know about AMES Australia. However, in people’s minds, AMES is mainly associated with the provision of English classes for adults, even though it is so much more as an organisation. Can you tell us more about AMES’ mission and the services it provides?
In short, AMES has all the essential ingredients for people newly arriving to Australia so they can be successfully settled. For refugees we do things like meeting people at the airport, finding them accommodation, ensuring the children get to school, helping with opening a bank account, registering with government services like health and social security, so all of those things you would imagine you need to do when you first arrive, those initial settlement services, and then we continue the settlement journey with migrants and refugees as then they start to think “What is next?”. “I want to get a job, I need to learn new skills or I need to learn English”, so we run those programs as well, with the mindset that whether it is training, learning English or our social participation programs, the end goal is obviously inclusion and work. We serve 50,000 clients per year.

We are a jobactive service provider that is funded by the Australian government to help people find work, and that might be people who have recently arrived. If we can try and help people get work as quickly as possible then the better that is, but through that program we may also be working with people who have been here for many, many years but find themselves unemployed. Some of these people have come to Australia, gone back and have come to Australia many years later, so for instance, there are many Greeks who went back to Greece and then during difficult times and the global financial crisis have decided to come back to Australia.

We try to present and work with people through a plan that says, “what is it that you need to settle here in Australia?” There are foundation core programs, but what we have learned over the many years that we have been working with refugees and migrants is that sometimes big institutional types of programs will not meet a particular need or there will be people who fall through the gaps. We responded with community designed programs, still with the social and economic outcome in mind. Many years ago, we set up some of our own businesses, so that we can provide real work experience to people with very low levels of English.

Are you referring to the social enterprises project?
Yes, I am referring to the social enterprises project where people can be in a real, supportive work environment rather than sitting in a classroom.

So how do people get involved in the social enterprises programs? Do they come to AMES and express their interest? Are they assessed? Are they trained?
A bit of both. I think of the Sorghum sisters in particular. With the catering social enterprises that we run, we were working with women in Carlton, women from the Horn of Africa, who were saying they cannot find work and their English isn’t good enough. They were struggling to learn more English, but they had skills in cooking. So together we created a business. With AMES’ skills, knowledge, and financial capacity, we were able to say, “We can invest in you, your skills to cook, and we will build a business together”.

Is this program open to other groups?
Yes, it is now. The food is very much based in the ‘Horn of Africa’ context and it’s very broad of that region, so there are things you would see in other cultures. It provides people with skills in that setting. From time to time, we have stepped in and developed programs that fulfill a particular need that those big, broad-based programs sometimes don’t.

We have a very important social participation program and we are working with women at the moment, particularly, helping them to develop their own enterprising skills. That might be women who are interested in earning just enough to get themselves out of welfare, not necessarily to run big businesses, but make samosas to sell at the market, craft clothes, or make handicrafts or whatever it might be.

Over the years AMES has developed and expanded. Can you also provide us some numbers on AMES’ output?
In a nutshell, our footprint is across the whole of Victoria. We have branches in New South Wales and we are about to open branches in South Australia and Tasmania. We go where there are large diverse communities either already established or establishing, so, in Victoria there are places like Springvale, Dandenong, Broadmeadows, Werribee; all of the places where there have been waves of migrants settling, where people might need our services.

We certainly try to provide employment services, language training, skills training as well as the wider settlement support, with case management in those locations. We often do these things in partnership with other organisations. For us it is important to be connected to the community, because our job is to be the bridge or the connector for new migrants coming in.

We do not want to have to deliver everything that a new migrant might need ourselves. We need to be able to understand what people need and connect them into the local community, so, in five to ten years down the track, when migrants are well integrated into the community and might need something from them, they know where to go and they do not come back to AMES. It is very nice when people come back to us to say, “Look how great I am doing! Isn’t this wonderful? Thank you!” but we haven’t really done our job properly if people are having to come back to AMES to say they have lost their house.

We know AMES has been offering employment services to break the cycle of unemployment and offers a number of programs by blending English language and foundation skills training with vocational content. Can you tell us more about AMES’ initiatives and services?
Employment is one of the most critical factors to successful settlement. Employment is the thing that gives you purpose, it keeps you well and healthy, connects you to other people, and helps you be financially well. We run a range of employment services and pathways to employment or transition to work, so when someone first arrives and their English may not be sufficient enough to work or find a job, we tailor our English program to the job that they might want to do in the future. We try to blend English language skills with job-specific skills, like running a hospitality training course as well as English learning courses so that people can move to work quite quickly. At the same time, we are also helping people understand what it means to work in Australia: what does the Australian labour market look like? What are employers looking for? How do they conduct interviews? etc. It’s called the Job Clubs program.

What are some other big barriers to find work? Is it the lack of social connections?
Often the biggest barrier is the lack of social connections. It is ‘who you know, not what you know’. Most jobs are not advertised and some migrants may have strong connections within their community but not broadly, which is where our job clubs or mentoring programs come in.

For people coming with professional qualifications, it is quite hard to break into professions here when you do not have local knowledge, local work experience ,and no local connections, so we match mentors from industries with new arrivals with similar backgrounds so they can connect and provide work experience. Some of the research we have been doing is about us trying to understand what the barriers are for migrants who have difficulty with finding work.

We use that research to tailor our programs.

For the professionals, we work with corporate workers to deliver a two day, in-depth seminar. We often give advice, but it is not the same as when Australian Post Human Resources tells migrants “This is what we are looking for”. People from other countries are not necessarily aware of the type of behavioural questions that Australian employers are asking, so they are not so interested in questions like: “Tell us all about your skills and qualifications and knowledge”, “We want to know about your soft skills”, “What would you do in this setting?”, or “How do you work in a team?” Lots of migrants I have talked to say employers did not ask them about their qualifications, but wanted to know whether they can mix well with people. That can be confusing because people are expecting to be judged on their abilities to do that job. To some extent we are offering services beyond just getting the job; being able to keep the job is also very critical.

Our employment services spend a lot of time working with employers to help them understand what it is going to be like to have someone from a different background in their workplace, as well as some of the nuisances around communication, so that they will continue to work with people and be able to answer questions from an employer or from an employee.

Are employers positive about employing migrants?
Yes, mostly. Many of the employers that we work with will often say “we had no idea that we were missing the potential that we are seeing in this group”. In many cases, they do not understand why some migrants are not working because they are highly skilled, incredibly motivated, very resilient and hardworking, but sometimes a lot of large companies go through employment agencies that are filtering them out. The filtering process can often mean that someone misses out on a person who would otherwise be amazing.

We had a client who was from a Middle Eastern background who was applying for jobs under his name and was getting no responses, so he used an Anglicised name and suddenly he was getting interviews all over the place.

So there are structural barriers in the labour market?
Yes, and some of these barriers we would call indirect discrimination, like human resource officers or people do not necessarily realise that is what they are doing, but there is an inbuilt cultural bias.

AMES’ strengths-based approach may be the answer to the many employment challenges that you have analysed. Can you tell us more?
The strengths-based approach is founded on the idea that all of us, as individuals, are the expert of our own situations and circumstances, and everybody has strengths. We start by understanding what peoples’ strengths are and use those to build their capacity to achieve the outcomes they want to achieve rather than identify peoples’ deficits or problems. We identify what your strengths are and build on those, because then you will be able to find out what your problems are and deal with those. People aren’t the problem, problems are the problem.

* For more on AMES’ employment and immigration view see: Vocational Training for New Migrants. A Pathway into Carework, AMES Australia.
* Μaria Filio Tridimas is a sociologist with a strong interest in immigration policies, inclusion and migrant education. She has studied Human Rights, European Studies and International Relations and Educational Policy at the University of Warwick (UK) and University of Athens (Greece). She is responsible for the design and coordination of the educational initiative ‘Melbourne-Athens: A Journey of Friendship’ implemented by the Greek Community of Melbourne’s Language and Culture Schools in collaboration with the Hellenic American Educational Foundation (HAEF) (Psychico College).