Generosity in translation: the value of volunteering to Australia’s Kosovar refugee programme

Generosity in translation: the value of volunteering to Australia’s Kosovar refugee programme

Title Image: Seide Ramadani (right) introducing former Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga (centre) and Kosovo Ambassador to Australia Dr Sabri Kicmari (left) at the Global Summit of Women in Sydney, 2018. Photograph by R. Carr.

By Robert Carr @robcarr09

A month before the Kosovar refugees began to arrive in Australia on 7th May 1999, Seide Ramadani was preparing for the role of translator at the East Hills army barracks, hastily redesignated as a refugee reception centre, in Sydney, Australia.

The then 19 year old jumped enthusiastically into the ‘deep-end’ without any formal training working with refugees.

The Australian government faced a drastic shortage of Albanian speaking staff.

“The Albanian community came together at a moment’s notice across the country. We have a very generous and supportive community in the diaspora”, Seide says.

The Albanian community continued to support the Kosovar refugees throughout Operation Safe Haven - the Australian government’s evacuation programme in which 4,000 Kosovars were provided temporary safe haven at eight army barracks around the country.

Volunteering for roles as diverse as translators, cooks, educators and excursion leaders, the community initially committed to “3 months, then we were needed for 8 months, then a year”, Seide says. The timeline was progressively extended, as Operation Safe Haven persisted until the early months of 2000.

Seide’s journey from a novice and nervous teenager to exhausted but indispensible volunteer translator would lead not only to a career change, but to a change of perspective.    

Nineteen years later, Seide remembers the experience fondly.

But my hour-long video interview with Seide also reveals the personal and emotional cost of volunteering in refugee support programmes – in this instance, one significantly born of being on-call 24 hours a day for a prolonged, uncertain length of time.

Background: generosity and refugees

Volunteering is depicted as an important act of generosity by the United Nations (UN), which states: “Through volunteering, citizens build their resilience, enhance their knowledge base and gain a sense of responsibility for their own community. Social cohesion and trust is strengthened through individual and collective volunteer action…”

‘Generosity’ can be defined as the selfless act of providing material or emotional support and comfort to others in need.

My book Generosity and Refugees: The Kosovars in Exile is an inquiry into how a sense of generosity can and has shaped state responses to refugees. A political history, it explores a period when Australian generosity permeated the government’s response to the plight of refugees.

The book explores whether there are limits to generosity within a broader debate and context concerning refugee resettlement, how the notion of generosity is inhibited by national and historical perspectives, and how these perspectives have been mediated in popular, media and political discourse.

Internationally, Whitaker states that the 1980s and 1990s “witnessed a sharp reversal of an historical pattern of relative generosity in refugee policy on the part of all the Western capitalist democracies”. Kushner further described how the “hostility of the media, politicians, state and public against asylum-seekers in Britain is unprecedented in its intensity”, adding that “history has been instrumentalized to prove, through alleged generosity in the past, the moral righteousness of Britain’s treatment of refugees.”

In the Australian context, Jenkins states that tensions over the limits of generosity “invoke a set of questions about that sovereignty that all political parties to this dispute have been determined to assert as the bottom line of any debate over immigration: the claim that only those we choose to enter may enter, and that only under the condition of such authority can there ever be any exercise of generosity.”

While Operation Safe Haven certainly revealed culturally conservative prejudices, the view espoused in Generosity and Refugees is that a sense of generosity can be measured by the ways in which Australians come to know newcomers.

Seide’s story sits uniquely at this juncture. From a migrant family, Seide’s encounter with the ‘newcomers’, the Kosovar refugees, disrupts the notion that generosity can or should only be ‘bestowed’ by dominant political and cultural groups upon those seeking assistance.

‘She slept with her shoes on’

In April 2018, Seide introduced the former President of Kosovo Atifete Jahjaga to a packed international audience attending the Global Summit of Women in Sydney.

The event was host to a screening of the documentary Thinking of You which, sponsored by President Jahjaga’s office, draws attention to the victims of sexual assault during the Kosovo War – an estimated 20,000 ethnic Albanian women, who were among around 70,000 women who experienced sexual violence during the 1990s conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.     

Introducing the President, Seide recalled how Australians welcomed the Kosovar refugees in 1999 with unprecedented kindness and generosity.

“Australians were among the first to respond to the call to evacuate the Kosovar refugees,” Seide – who migrated from Kosovo to Australia as a young child with her family – described with great pride.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had in early April 1999 formally requested countries outside of the Balkans to airlift refugees out of the region.

The Australian government was among 29 governments to evacuate and accommodate Kosovar refugees, though not without initial reluctance.

Saide, whose family was and continues to be active members of Sydney’s Albanian Australian community, experienced this decision by the Australian government with a deep sense of personal responsibility.

Being a volunteer at refugee reception centres requires a knack for being responsive and ‘making it up as you go’, Seide suggests during our interview.

There was also an unexpected, long-term residual trauma that resulted for many community members. Seide says: “I haven’t looked back on this stuff for good reason, there’s a lot of fun and good stories but there’s a lot of heavy-hearted things.”

“I realised very early on [that] people who’ve been through war don’t want to talk about it. Because to us, there’s a distance in the stories, but what people saw they can never un-see in their lives.”

Seide describes how “One little girl … would sleep with her shoes on … in case she [had] to get up in the middle of the night and escape, even in East Hills.”

“There were kids and girls who, when leaving [for evacuation], they would put mud on their faces in the hope they wouldn’t be picked out as sex slaves.”

Seide adds: “This was horrific, you know, and we just weren’t prepared to understand the depth and pain of people’s suffering.”

A change in career and perspective

The experience impacted Seide in unexpected but also very positive ways, adding to her resilience and capacity for working across cultural divides particularly involving young people.

“I quit my accounting studies and career to volunteer for Operation Safe Haven”, Seide says.

“After it ended I couldn’t think of crunching numbers again, so I took a pay cut and ended up working in refugee services [in] resettlement programs. I then found my pathway into community development and I have worked in community services ever since.”

She added, “I now work in remote indigenous communities. I am grateful for finding my lifelong path for my passion because of Operation Safe Haven.”

Many aspects of Seide’s experience with the Kosovar refugees also presented new challenges. Life-balance was a particular challenge, as Seide recalls the difficulty of “keeping boundaries and maintaining a life outside of Operation Safe Haven.”

“From all the stories [of trauma] we were hearing, we all felt a deep responsibility to support in any way we could. We would spend many late nights until 2am or 3am at the barracks.”  

Seide goes on: “We would go home only to sleep and then come back early in the morning again to provide interpreting and cultural support to the agencies. I remember for about six months eating only hot dogs at the BP Service station almost on a daily basis – it was fast  and it was $1 and that’s all I would have time for.”

Fatigue and burnout were ongoing risks, Seide says, “but I kept going almost on ‘auto pilot’ for another 5 months. It almost became routine.”

“But there was no time to check in on yourself. Often if I felt tired, or stressed, I would feel angry at myself because I knew how much many of the refugees had suffered and I hadn’t been through anything of that extent.”

“After it all ended, that’s when I started noticing how deeply affected I was by it all. I suppose in some way it’s like when Olympians retire, and life shifts dramatically - that’s how it felt for me.”

“Suddenly I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to readjust back to my previous existence.”

Wellbeing and recognition

Seide recalls that the Australian government failed to account for the mental wellbeing of volunteers, with little support forthcoming in the form of volunteer debriefings or counselling.

There has also been little recognition of their efforts by the Australian government - apart from ‘certificates of appreciation’ signed by the Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. This is despite the crucial role played by Albanian community volunteers from the very beginning to the end of Operation Safe Haven.

The Operation would have been logistically impossible without their services, which were largely unpaid.

In Generosity and Refugees: The Kosovars in Exile I explore the implications for the Kosovar refugees regarding the cultural conservatism of the Australian government led by Prime Minister John Howard.

It is difficult not to link the lack of Howard Government recognition for the contribution of the Australian Albanian community to Operation Safe Haven with a culturally conservative whitewashing of history.  

Regaining control and purpose

Seide says, “The most important thing for [the Kosovar refugees] was to regain their sense of identity and purpose,” and this should be a priority for refugee policy makers today.  

“I remember in the early stages of Operation Safe Haven, that decisions were being made for families without checking in. Eventually, they started to engage the ‘head of the household’ (usually father or grandfather) in meetings. This became very effective.”

“Not only [do] people regain a sense of power in decision making but it also showed to policy makers the diversity of opinions and ideas that can be held within the community about broad issues.”  

Seide adds: “It’s easy for us to rely on literature or a small pool of community representatives and use this to form the basis of policy and practice. But it’s extremely important to keep in the back of your mind that individual needs and priorities can be very different and sometimes not align with what we may know about the cultural, religious or geographical context of someone’s heritage.”

Building confidence and a sense of empowerment among evacuees was also very important.

Seide states: “When one of the agencies brought make up for the women, some people were critical saying ‘they have far better priorities than make up’”.

“But I remember how excited and proud women felt to be putting on their make up. It brought a sense of feeling ‘normal’ again - and not just being reminded everyday that you are a refugee in an army barracks.”

Robert Carr’s new book Generosity and Refugees: The Kosovars in Exile will be available from 24th June 2018, and can be ordered through Brill publishing online at   


Jenkins, F. 2002. ‘Gesture Beyond Tolerance: generosity, fatality and the logic of the state’. Angelaki. 7(3): 119-129.

Kushner, T. 2003. ‘Meaning nothing but good: ethics, history and asylum-seeker phobia in Britain’. Patterns of Prejudice 37(3): 257-276.

Whitaker, R. 1998. ‘Refugees: The Security Dimension’. Citizenship Studies 2(3): 413-434.

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