Jen Couch describes young people's activism during the tower lock down
It was a year ago that residents in Melbourne’s public housing towers found out they’d been forced into lockdown when busloads of police began appearing outside their windows.
Augustino, an ACU youth work student who grew up in one of the Flemington towers said his phone lit up. He was off the estate at the time but ran home to find that residents had been given 15 minutes notice that they would be confined to their flats.
Within one hour, he had formed an online group. People began mobilising to organise food and healthcare. Some focused on creating and distributing multilingual information. Augustino and his friends, aged 17 to 25 began door-knocking apartments, asking residents what they needed and noting down any emergency supplies. Donations, often personal and from the young people themselves, funded the first food and medicine drops. Young people emerged as carers as they comforted people who were distressed and confused:
Actually, when the lockdown came, I was at my brother’s, not on the estate. I thought that I should just stay there. But how could I? My family and community were there. I knew how frightened people would be. When I got back there were so many police, it looked like something terrible had happened. We decided to go door to door in one tower block where we knew a lot of people. As we got to doors, we could hear crying. There were so many corridors, where that is all we could hear.
Photos by Mariam Koslay, used with permission.
After that initial weekend, hundreds of volunteers, mostly young, mostly from Melbourne’s migrant and refugee communities, dropped everything and come to support residents in lockdown.
Within hours, messages were spreading through Instagram and Twitter on how to share support. Volunteers in Melbourne were buying food and other supplies. It wasn’t a structured or hierarchical group, but rather an organic response that has harnessed the viral power of social media.
Young residents understood that there was a distrust in public health messaging. The Flemington high rise community has a history of ‘over-policing,’ especially regarding young people. There have been long-running and well-documented community concerns, including legal action about discriminatory policing, documented racial profiling, policing operations targeting ethnicities and multiple incidents of severe human rights abuses over many years. Many have argued that the choice to deploy large numbers of police officers as the government’s frontline response removed agency, self-determination and control from residents, local community networks and health responders. This was considered especially alienating considering the extensive expertise in health and social work among the residents, including aged-care workers, nurses and youth workers.
The gaps in information and lack of trust became remarkably apparent when, at midnight on the third night of lockdown, young people were asked to accompany public health workers in going door to door to convince people to be tested.
We were asked to help the health workers go to each door, especially those people from our culture. We knew where they were and there were no interpreters. The health workers needed us as many people would not open their doors.
Young people also began documenting what was happening on the estate, using Instagram and Facebook to capture how they were experiencing lockdown inside and outside the towers.
We began putting everything on Insta. For some of us we know how it is when you feel trapped. No power and not being able to do a thing about your situation.
Hashtags such as #weseeyou documented not just the lives of the residents locked in the apartments, but also of the young people from the community who were providing aid, support, and information. These acts showed how young people were providing care and sharing information:
We know what it is like to be invisible. A refugee’s life is about walking a line between not wanting to be visible and then realising that if you are not, anything can happen. Being visible can be powerful. That is why we had to let people know that we saw them.
The videos, posts and tweets posted by young people from the estate in the first 24 hours of lockdown drew attention to the multitude of logistic failures in implementing the shutdown. This kind of innovative engagement inspired and motivated other young people into action.
That young people stepped up to support some of Melbourne’s most vulnerable communities was not surprising. My research has shown (Couch, Liddy & McDougall 2021) that from the start of the pandemic, young people from migrant communities were providing for their families and communities as navigators, translators, information sharers carers and innovators.
At the time of writing this article, we have just passed the one-year anniversary with the same young people returning to the estate and delivering a message to each of the residents who had been locked down.
In taking on roles as caregivers, providers and navigators in their communities, young people have demonstrated ability to endure and respond to complex challenges. Their response to the tower lockdowns shows that entire communities can benefit from the unique competencies young people carry with them, including effective coping mechanisms, adaptability, and resourcefulness. Young people of refugee background represent clear assets both to their communities and to public health initiatives and are an under-utilised resource and one that could significantly improve how information is disseminated in refugee communities.
As we continue to navigate through, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that government and community agencies acknowledge and recognise the work that young refugees have been doing. These agencies need to create spaces for young people to be strategic partners in response and recovery, recognize their efforts, and support them further. This includes the development of more sensitive and strategic policies, supporting young people’s networks and creating enabling environments. Further, young people need to be given leadership roles, engaged as genuine partners, and offered improved career pathways, as articulated by a young person Shabnam Safa in her Facebook post during the tower lockdown
The conditions that are conducive to a society’s or community’s resilient responses during crises are, among others, equality, inclusion, diversity, flexibility, collaboration, loose connections, abilities to learn and opportunities to experiment. The very qualities that young refugees have displayed.
Couch, J., Liddy, N. & McDougall, J. ‘Our Voices Aren’t in Lockdown’—Refugee Young People, Challenges, and Innovation During COVID-19. JAYS (2021).