December 18, 2023

Compassion and empathy: how lived experience as a refugee can support others on their migration journey

Yara Al Shehadeh is the Senior Migration Liaison Officer for Spectrum’s Community Support Program (CSP). She is part of the team responsible for screening applications from people wanting to sponsor refugees to come to Australia. Yara started working for Spectrum in 2021, but her interest in helping refugees to navigate new beginnings began many years earlier.


Three staff members from Spectrum's Migration Liaison team

Photo (l to r) – members of the Migration Liaison Team, Nader, Yara and Rima

Yara fled war and persecution in Syria in 2013 and was living in Iraq with her husband when she met an Iraqi/Australian who was a migration agent. At this time, Yara had already been informally helping friends and relatives to complete their migration forms, so Yara was offered a job.

‘I started with him, and he taught me a lot about migration law’, said Yara. ‘We were doing a lot of Humanitarian Visas, Investment Visas and Student Visas. Most of my work was Humanitarian and Visitor Visas.’

After four years working to support others on their migration journey, Yara and her husband decided to apply for a refugee visa themselves.
‘I didn’t know anyone in Australia, but my manager knew a man from Aleppo who was a similar age to me, with a wife and children,’ said Yara. ‘They sponsored us. He was such a nice person. We submitted the application and when we came to Australia, he met me at the airport. He was there to welcome us.’

Yara was seven months pregnant when she arrived in Australia.

‘When my daughter was born in 2017, I was feeling very sad. I didn’t have hope, because I had been working all my life and suddenly, I stopped with the new baby, and no one was here with me. Just me and my husband. It was very hard at the beginning.

‘Then I started looking at the people in my (Syrian) community who would like to bring their families here. I have empathy for them. They didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know how to fill in the forms. Most of them can’t speak English. Even if they speak English, it is hard to fill in the forms.’

Yara began to volunteer at the Australian Syrian Charity helping people to reunite with their families.

‘I started working – for free – doing their forms and lodging their applications to the Department. Now all of them are here!’, Yara said with a smile.

In 2021, Yara was encouraged by the leader of the Australian Syrian Charity to apply for the position of Migration Liaison Officer at Spectrum, and she was successful.

Migration Liaison Officers spend much of their day responding to phone calls and emails from clients asking questions about the Community Support Program (CSP). They help clients to prepare their documents, and provide initial screening to ensure they meet the strict eligibility requirements before handing over eligible cases to Spectrum’s registered Migration Agents who will submit and provide follow up on applications.

Eligibility requirements for migration under the CSP can often change and many people who submit an Expression of Interest (EOI) may be screened as ineligible and will not make it to the formal application phase. For successful applicants, the time from submission of EOI to arrival in Australia can sometimes take up to five years.

But the success stories that come out of this program are profound.

Yara shares a story of a recent case where a Syrian refugee was not initially eligible for the CSP, because she was living in a country that was not on the approved list. When Yara heard the woman’s heartbreaking story, including her experience as a survivor of family violence, she applied to the Dept of Home Affairs to make an exception.

‘They usually reply within one day, or two days, but there was a long wait, maybe one month,’ said Yara. ‘And then when they send me, “yes you can apply”, I told her, and she was really happy. She was crying, and I cried with her.’

‘This is my field,’ said Yara. ‘It was my passion to help people, to help refugees. Especially for those from my home country, because I know what people are facing when they flee from their countries. I know that feeling of loss – and if you don’t have someone.’

Yara reflected on the significance of her own migration journey.

‘I feel settled. Before, you feel like you are lost, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know if you would like to study, or if you would like to improve your English. No one can accept you because of the language barrier. Now I feel settled. Even the environment here (at Spectrum) – it’s really a home.

‘In our countries we were always afraid. My children, I feel like their life is better than ours. (To) feel at home means feeling compassion for each other. To feel secure. It was a good decision for me to come here.’

Find out more about Spectrum’s Community Support Program


In the 2022-23 financial year, Spectrum’s CSP:

  • received 587 Expressions of Interest via the CSP
  • submitted 96 Visa applications for families
  • welcomed 133 new arrivals