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Leading from the heart: Meet Mengistu Hailu

For the past six years, Mengistu Hailu has worked to support people seeking asylum through his role as Senior Case Coordinator at the Romero Centre in Brisbane. This month, Mengistu has been appointed as the new Romero Centre Manager—an appointment celebrated by the Romero Centre and Mercy Community teams, as well as all those who collaborate with Mengistu daily.  

We managed to find some time in Mengistu’s busy calendar to talk about his journey, jobs that don’t feel like jobs, multiculturalism in Australia, and the gift of empowering others. 

Leaving home 

Mengistu was born in Ethiopia, high in the mountains near the source of the Nile River and went to a traditional church school.  

‘As a child I learned the church language, which is extinct now. I studied there for over 7 years, and I developed my communication skills and ability to build relationships with people. I was involved deeply with my own community.’ 

Mengistu worked with the Patriarch of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  

‘Due to the political changes,’ said Mengistu, ‘the Patriarch had to flee to exile in Kenya. I had to leave my country… but not by luxury, by foot,’ he said. From Kenya, Mengistu travelled to New Zealand where he sought asylum, was held in detention for five and a half months, and was finally granted refugee status. 

A new start in New Zealand 

After being granted refugee status in New Zealand, Mengistu had the opportunity to study electrical engineering.  

‘I worked in that industry for about three years, but my values and my personality didn’t fit with that. Then, I studied a Level 4 Certificate in Mental Health Support Work where the role involved conversation, help with planning, provision of emotional support—compared with electrical work, it didn’t really feel like a job to me, and I felt guilty for earning. So, I went to study shipping and freight.  

After completion of his shipping course, Mengistu ‘… made a deep analysis and reflection on what makes me happy and found my true calling, which is to help people in their difficult time. I can say it is God’s gift to smile, empathise and transfer the good energy to others.’

‘I always try not to be there as a worker, but as a good friend.’

Moving to Australia 

While in New Zealand, Mengistu was invited to serve the Ethiopian community as a church leader in Australia. That was 2013.

Today, Mengistu brings a wealth of skills and knowledge to his role. He is the leader of the Australian Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a trained social worker, and has a lifetime of grassroots, faith-based, community development skills. This includes 13 years of professional experience working with refugees and people seeking asylum—three of which involved a special focus on people living with severe mental health struggles, as well as his own, lived experience of seeking asylum.  

Walking in another’s shoes 

We asked Mengistu how his own experience assists him in his work with people. 

‘I have a combination of lived and professional work experience so I can understand the people seeking asylum better. Humility and the sharing of own experience are vital elements to me, to build trust and understand the stressful journey. My immigration detention is still fresh. These fresh memories and experiences always help me to remember and take them as reference to help asylum seekers.’ 

Mengistu says that the fact he was eventually granted refugee status is often a great ray of hope for people.  

‘I share my story to people seeking asylum with genuine and honest heart comfortably when required and it helps them to think that “we are in the same boat” with a common story and experience which opens the doors to enter to other people’s hearts. That is what I bring to Mercy.’ 

Mengistu’s work at the Romero Centre 

The Romero Centre is a hub for people seeking asylum in Brisbane, Queensland. The Romero Centre is guided by the missions and visions of Catherine McAuley and St. Oscar Romero. Mengistu’s work is challenging, but rewarding.  

‘I support Romero staff, manage the day-to-day activities in the Centre, maintain the relationships with stakeholders, build new relationships, advocate for people seeking asylum and raise awareness to Australian community and talk about the Romero Centre and the people we support.’ 

Multicultural Month, time to reflect 

‘Multicultural Month is a time to talk about diversity, about being ‘many’ instead of just one culture. It informs us to support one another, connect with one another, learn from one another, acknowledge refugees and asylum seekers’ challenge, and support them to come forward and contribute to the community and to the country,’ says Mengistu. 

‘It’s also about sharing stories with others. We may think that we know everything, but we don’t know other people’s story unless they tell us.’ 

‘Sharing stories has the power to change people’s minds and encourage us to do things differently.’

‘What’s also important is sharing what we have. Showing generosity and kindness to one another… changing the way we think about cultures.’ 

The Romero Centre is a community organisation located in Dutton Park. It is partially supported by Mercy Community but relies on community generosity to help show welcome and provide support for asylum seekers living in Brisbane. If you would like to make a donation, please visit their website.

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