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  • Writer's pictureSuzanne Mzuri Watts

A Change in Priority - Covid Times

Mzuri Dance works with parents and young people living in Yarra public housing estates and those families relocated to the fringes of Melbourne’s Western Suburbs.

In 2020 when the Covid-19 Pandemic reached Melbourne, daily life for everyone changed and the future became very uncertain. Within a matter of weeks it was obvious to Suzie & Ayel that the lock downs and restrictions in place were creating even greater stress and disconnection for the African Australian families living in Melbourne’s housing estates. Loss of employment, childcare, school and social isolation had an immediate impact on this already vulnerable community.

Suzie and Ayel quickly adapted their dance and life skills program to a ‘maintaining community connection focus’ and checked in with young people and their families through WhatApp, phone calls, social media as well as on the ground check ins around the estates, with full covid safety measures in place.

Ayel, who lives and works in the community reported back in zoom meetings that children in the housing estates were going without regular meals due to the financial hardship parents and carers were experiencing. Children were losing weight, mental health was deteriorating and young people were finding it hard to stay connected. Many kids don’t have access to lap tops or ipads and a lot of families can’t afford NBN which has made their ability to stay connected to people and programs even harder. The primary aged children attended school on site until midday each day to have access to learning through lockdowns but this made them feel even more marginalised from their peers who had broadband at home and could learn online.

Suzie and Ayel recognised how serious this situation was and pivoted their program to provide further support to young people, and families by setting up a food relief program in response to the desperate need they were witnessing.

Working with their well-established networks, Mzuri Dance partnered with Yarra Libraries Well Being, ACFA, Fairness Fund (Australian Communities Foundation sub fund)with CMY, to provide culturally appropriate food parcels in a sensitive and dignified way. These organisations generously supported Mzuri’s initiative to provide food relief to their community by allowing grants to be redirected for this urgent purpose under the challenging circumstances of the pandemic.

2021 unfolded as another exceptionally challenging year, Mzuri Dance continued to deliver programs and community support including further food relief from August – December. Mzuri scaled the food relief program to include North Richmond. Organisations such as Yarra Libraries Well Being Program, ACFA, a self directed volunteer team from Food without Borders and Lentil as Anything, AAFRA Management Team and a number of generous local businesses such as Gram Sustainable and Terra Madre, supported this initiative by supplying a combination of dry food, fresh food, cooked meals, essential sanitary items and supermarket vouchers.

Agile Financial Services, Taios Productions, Aricia Kostouros (philanthropy consultant),CMY, Cultivating Community and Banh House all provided valuable in kind support through advice, resources and/ or services.

Ayel and Suzie coordinated the ordering, collection, packaging and delivery of fresh food and cooked meals with the support of a number of generous volunteers from their own networks both within and outside the housing estate community.

Mzuri Dance has a strong commitment to sustainability and where possible food was bought in bulk and repackaged in recycled materials to reduce waste and cost.

In March 2021 Suzie Watts registered the Mzuri Dance Artistree Fund Inc. formalising the not for profit work Mzuri Dance has been doing within and for the community over many years. Mzuri Dance Artistree Fund Inc. has been created to continue the work that supports young people to be socially connected and find purpose through dance, life skills and cultural identity.

Throughout 2021 lock downs, Suzie and Ayel continued to deliver the Mzuri weekly dance, life skills and well-being programs to those young people and women who were able to access technology and had the capacity to attend online. Each time lock downs were lifted they were there, in person, to support and inspire the community through dance, conversation and by listening to the communities’ needs. During Lockdowns 2 of their students were nominated for the CMY My Education Awards 2021 and were so pleased for two students who were awarded most outstanding Secondary Student and for their outstanding learning achievements and contribution to out-of-school-hours learning support programs.

Suzie and Ayel are so grateful to have stayed in close communication with the young people that attend their programs throughout 2021. Mzuri hosted a private community celebration in December to bring families together in a safe and supportive space as everyone emerges out of lock down.

Mzuri Dance Artistree Fund recognises the serious impacts the past two years of the pandemic and Melbourne’s lock downs have had on the young African Australian people and their families living in the housing estate and will continue to listen to their needs and invest in developing new programs to support their community.

Thanks to the funding bodies Fairness Fund,(sub-fund of Australian Community Foundation), Yarra Arts, Vic Health Re-imagining Grant, Engage North Richmond Grant for the opportunity to stay connected and maintain social and creative engagement with the communities throughout 2021 as it allowed Mzuri Dance Artistree to know people needed help.

Thanks to : Inner North Community Foundation C-19 disaster relief fund, and the Limb Family Foundation for providing financial support in 2021 which allowed Mzuri Dance Artistree Fund continue the Covid-19 food relief program until the end of lock down 2021.

Thank you to all the amazing Mzuri volunteers for their support and generosity…

Anita Baker

Mary Halou

Susanna Williams

Korlu Zarwue

Achol Margok

Beth Anon

Rebecca Willow Hutton

Emma Byrnes

Chris Dufflied

Ricky Sproule



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