Meet Your Local FM: Dandenong Refugee Resource Hub’s Thuch Ajak on maintaining a home of hope

by Helena Morgan
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When attending a concert at a theatre, moseying around an art gallery or museum, passing by the local PCYC or experiencing child-like wonder at the zoo, have you ever stopped to ponder who is in charge of the management and operations of this bustling and beloved facility?

This year, Facility Management launches a new editorial series called ‘Meet Your Local FM’, where we talk with the facility and operation managers, technical service and safety operators, and sustainability officers of iconic Australian institutions.

We’re diving deep to reveal a facility’s inner mechanics, along with the who and how of what it takes to keep these special spaces running so smoothly. We’re putting a face to a facility and debunking any assumptions surrounding this essential profession which many don’t know a lot about.

Care, comfort and compassion

Only a 35-kilometre drive from the Melbourne CBD, the suburb of Dandenong is the most culturally diverse community in Australia, with 64 percent of the population born overseas. Additionally, there are 2000 people currently seeking asylum in Greater Dandenong, which is the largest for any Victorian municipality. 

In catering towards this ongoing demand for support, services and guidance, the Asylum Seeker Refugee Centre (ASRC) – founded in 2001 and now Australia’s biggest human rights organisation providing support for people seeking asylum – decided to establish a second community centre in Dandenong, that would shine as a place marked by the unflagging delivery of care, comfort and compassion. 

The Dandenong Refugee Resource Hub (RRH) has operated as a bustling community-services-one-stop-shop for nearly three years – with cultural mindfulness and a commitment to help anyone in need propelling the team forward. 

Facility management is a life skill

Describing his role as akin to an “engine behind the operation”, Thuch Ajak beams as the senior partnerships advisor – and former facilities and operations manager – of the Dandenong RRH. 

Ajak studied agriculture in South Sudan and came to Australia as a refugee in 2015. He has worked in council and local and state government, as a South Sudanese liaison officer and electorate officer for a Member of Parliament, and is a radio presenter for Casey Radio 97.1 FM to boot.

He exudes a willingness and drive to help the community in any way, shape or form. After learning of the RRH’s opening, he applied for the role of operations manager, although slightly apprehensive. 

The RRH has a dedicated play area for children.

I took a chance, and at first it was a bit challenging getting to understand the workload and what needed to be done in terms of the repairs and scheduling,” he says. 

Ajak was slightly unaware of the tremendous amount of work involved in risk assessment and operational management, yet the acquisition of new skills has been one of his biggest highlights of working at the RRH. 

“I didn’t know the work that goes on behind the scenes until I sat in the office chair. There is knowledge you gain that exclusively comes from being a facilities manager,” he says. 

“But it doesn’t stop at the office – it goes with you. It becomes a life skill.”

A big wheel that keeps on rotating 

The Dandenong RRH offers a range of services such as legal aid, foodbanks, counselling, education, employment programs and English language classes. Numerous refugee-led organisations use the hub as a gathering space to deliver their services, conduct training and meetings, and host events and conferences. 

Ajak explains that securing a desk, computer or event space at other community centres is a tricky task, which encourages the RRH to offer amenities at affordable prices to refugee-led organisations. 

Sisters Works, a non-for-profit organisation that helps refugee, migrant and asylum-seeking women secure employment, regularly holds events and meetings at the centre. Since 2013,  more than 800 women have earned an income through Sister Works. The RRH also partners with the Centre for Migrant and Refugee Health and Multicultural Youth Support Services

Ajak admits it can be difficult managing and balancing the different demands of the centre, however his experience so far has made him realise the imperativeness of teamwork to the management of a space like the RRH. An absence of collaboration and open communication is corrosive to operations.  

“I am very lucky to have a team that shares the heart of making sure the centre runs smoothly,” says Ajak. 

“If everything doesn’t fit the way it’s supposed to, it affects the work of other departments – basically, the centre is a big wheel and we have to keep it rotating, because if the facilities managers are not there, and the place is untidy or disorderly, then it will disrupt the normal operations of the centre.”

A warm welcome to the centre and community

Like many facility managers, Ajak’s role revolves around supervising staff and volunteers and overseeing bookings, operations and maintenance, yet he also relishes being the hub’s health and safety representative. He was tasked with rewriting proceedings and processes as the hub’s inaugural operations and facilities manager. 

As the two-storey centre on Thomas Street is still in its infancy stages, contractors regularly frequent the site, and Ajak cites the design – completed by Bates Smart and Garner Davis Architects – as essential to maintaining the warm, welcoming and safe feeling of the centre. 

“The centre is truly captivating – when you enter there’s a warm welcome that comes from the architecture and design,” says Ajak. 

Members are afforded access to desks and computers for an affordable price.

The design process was innately collaborative and cooperative. Architects from Bates Smart and Garner Davis consulted with members of Footscray’s ASRC centre to gauge how to make the space calming, peaceful and nourishing to future users.

An average day is a rarity

Ajak and the team are determined to uphold a reputation of friendly and good-spirited hospitality, which is made easy by the generous support from the community and benefactors.

“We are a not-for-profit organisation and rely so much on the donations and support of the community,” says Ajak. 

A day in the life at RRH is predictably unexpected and ever-evolving. Ajak says duties and tasks alter depending on pending maintenance and operations. Scurrying, motion and hard work behind the scenes keep the cogs turning to sustain precision, and above everything, achieve the centre’s purpose to be contributory and enrich the community. 

The team is driven to create not only a home for those seeking asylum and refugees, yet also a platform for different refugee-led organisations to showcase the meaning and value behind their work. 

“The community is getting so much from the hub because the ASRC – in collaboration with the refugee-led organisations who have co-located with us – are delivering wonderful services to the community all under one roof,” says Ajak.

A long-awaited asset to Dandenong area

Ajak loves seeing the centre at full capacity and peak use – it is a vibrant well-oiled machine that has a sense of productivity and discipline alight in the air. 

Operations are trauma-informed and guided, as people arrive from painful and stressful situations. These operations compel staff to ensure the services and hospitality are the antithesis to the trauma people have endured prior to walking through the door, and instead welcome them into a space that is conducive to calmness. 

When a person enters the RRH for the first time, the receptionists direct them to social workers on-site. “The social worker will have a sit with them and that will be the first and only time they share their story – they will not have to repeat their stories, because each time they share their story, they relive the trauma,” says Ajak.

One of the RRH’s main features is a food bank.

Depending on the reason for a person’s visit to the centre, they are then redirected to various services such as the food bank and any services delivered by both our co-locating partner and partial partners. The team also has access to translation services. 

There is a dedicated area for children, so if parents require focus and stillness when in counselling sessions or receiving legal advice, children can play in a safe and controlled area. 

Adapting and improvising 

The main obstacles and challenges within the operational management of the RRH involve overcoming the limitations of an unstable supply chain and adapting to evolving needs.

Ajak recalls waiting for a month for an air conditioning replacement in summer, in addition to navigating flash flooding from the next door premises just after construction was completed, which prompted the team to exercise due diligence and rally together. 

“It was very unexpected as we were in a brand new building, and no one thought it would flood!” remembers Ajak.  

However, he sees the flooding as a blessing in disguise, as the centre is now prepared for future events, and is proactive in informing staff and members in the rain season that a flood is possible. 

Photo by Sean Fennessy.

Ajak says the ongoing influx of diverse users of the space also occasionally hinders seamless operations, as it is far from being a specific office for specific individuals. 

“You often feel stretched, there’s so much coming in, there’s so much traffic that needs attention,” he says. 

However, camaraderie and teamwork and constant check-ins with staff mean targets and demands are met. Responsiveness forces the team to stay alert and active, which is a reality Ajak is very happy to dive into.

“If you don’t have a team with you, a lot of things can fall through the cracks,” says Ajak. 

Adapting and improvising is a saving grace, and when armed with a strong team in facilities management, anything can seem possible. 

Photo by Sean Fennessy.

“Sometimes you can have everything planned out – a visit on this date, an interview on this date – but then things come unexpectedly and you have to be on top of it, especially when the damage can cost money and time,” says Ajak. 

He addresses how in the event of a flood or hefty maintenance work, even a week’s closure is disruptive to the vulnerable communities using the centre, as it upends the routines of groups who are relying on the hub’s internet access, food bank and counselling services. 

“If we close our centre for even a day, it can be a big blow to people,” says Ajak.

Shared experience

Ajak is inspired by how the design and layout of the building invites socialisation and togetherness – a spacious and open floor plan creates transparency. Staff vow to maintain the non-threatening and generous tone of the centre and not conceal themselves behind inaccessible walls and doors. 

“We don’t lock ourselves in our offices. We all work in the large workspace shared with our partners. People can come up to me and feel safe to raise any concern. We are living together in one big community,” says Ajak.

Photo by Sean Fennessy.

It is never lost on Ajak how crucial the centre is to the community. “There is currently no other place in Dandenong for people seeking asylum to feel at home,” he says. 

Staff proudly refer to the hub as a “home of hope” and it’s clear to see why. “People feel like they are a part of something bigger,” says Ajak. He wants all users of the space to call the hub home and feel comfortable to be authentic and vulnerable. 

Ajak – like many of the centre’s staff – is a refugee himself and attributes this experience as a major motivator for his continued devotion to the hub. “Most of the workers and myself share the same journey as a former refugee. There are a lot of things that we sympathise with, so it’s easy for us to build rapport,” says Ajak.

“Whatever they are going through, we are there with them.”

All photography unless otherwise stated supplied by Refugee Resource Hub. 

Josh Alfafara is determined to make the office a happy and safe place to be.

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