I was surrounded by the cultures of the world, as I rode the train to Auburn in Sydney’s western suburbs where I was due to meet an interview subject. It made me consider the concept of feeling ‘welcome’. The English poet, Warsan Shire, famously wrote:
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.
If I were an asylum seeker fleeing from civil war and persecution in my country, would I look at Australia as a welcoming home?
This is a question I often ask myself. It’s only by chance that I didn’t face this very predicament myself. When I was ten months old my parents migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka; a country in the grips of a bloody civil war. Despite being fortunate enough to be raised in this country, I am ambivalent about whether I am truly at home in Australia. So I can imagine what it may feel like for refugees and asylum seekers who settle here.
However as I researched and interviewed for this story, I began to understand that perhaps what has not received sufficient media attention is an important counter narrative. There is a critical body of work being undertaken by civil society to send a message to asylum seekers and refugees in Australia: you are welcome here.
State of Play
Today the world is facing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. According to Government figures, Australia accepted 17,555 refugee and humanitarian entrants in 2015-2016. However the Australian government has also faced international condemnation for its poor record of upholding refugee rights under the Refugee Convention 1951.
In its recent State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia report, the Refugee Council of Australia stated:
“Australia is also one of the world’s poorest in providing durable solutions to people who come here to claim protection – people seeking asylum – especially if they come by boat.”
This is despite data suggesting that the Australian public is increasingly in support of asylum seekers and refugees. A recent report by the Scanlon Foundation, Mapping Social Cohesion The Scanlon Foundation surveys 2016, found 80% of responders indicated support for Australia’s Humanitarian program. In relation to Syrian refugees in particular, 58% were in support. However there was opposition to asylum seekers arriving by boat, with 42% indicating “strong disapproval” and 20% responding with “disapproval”.
There is a movement within civil society that seeks to welcome refugees to Australia. Here you will be introduced to the human faces behind three Australian not for profit organisations that support and embrace asylum seekers and refugees.
Sue Fletcher has been volunteering at the Refugee Language Program for 14 years. Since 2003, the program has provided refugees and asylum seekers settled in Sydney with free English classes. It was previously funded by the University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor’s office, however since 2013 it relies on the generosity of donors and volunteers.
When asked why she decided to join the program, Sue responded:
“In 2004 they couldn’t access any English classes at all in any of the tertiary education centres. I didn’t like what was going, particularly the Howard government, I thought well you’ve got to do something about it instead of talking about it. Act.”
Michael Schultz is the Acting National Social Cohesion Coordinator at the Australian Red Cross, where he has worked for the past four years. The Australian Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement that operates across 190 countries with millions of volunteers and members.
Michael spoke about an asylum seeker he had worked with called Paul, who he described as being a lawyer from an African country. Paul waited for five and a half years to receive a determination on his refugee status. During this time, the Red Cross assisted him with emergency relief consisting of food, vouchers and financial assistance. He was ultimately successful in being granted refugee status and is now living in the Australian community.
Michael described the Red Cross’ involvement:
“It’s about assisting to maintain hope and build on the asylum seekers personal strengths and resilience, because they have been through a whole range of things before they arrive in the country and then when they are in Australia.”
Ruth explained how joiningthedots was created after the founder, Penny Elsey, met a group of Sudanese women who had lived in Australia for between five and ten years who revealed they had never been invited into the homes of Australians. Meanwhile, Penny’s circle of friends increasingly told her that they wanted to meet newly arrived Australians. The Welcome Dinner Project was born.
The concept is simple: dinners are held at homes or community centres with an equal number of established Australians and newly arrived Australians who gather together over a meal facilitated by a community host and volunteer facilitators. Ruth described the atmosphere at the dinners:
“It’s really just like having a group of friends over to your house”.
As a resident in south western Sydney, Ruth has seen the impact that refugee resettlement is having on the area. According to recent data from Settlement Services International, 4,700 Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrived in Fairfield in 2016. Ruth explained the importance of engaging and befriending these newcomers:
“We take our diversity and meet over our commonality: the food.”
This year Refugee Week will be held from 18 to 24 June with events across the country. Refugee week is an initiative of the Refugee Council of Australia and coincides with the UN’s World Refugee Day on 20 June.
The Refugee Language Program, Australian Red Cross and joiningthedots are only three examples of the powerful work being undertaken by not for profit organisations across Australia. To find out how to get involved, visit the Refugee Council of Australia website.