By Ben Grundy
The plight of refugees and asylum seekers can be an exasperating issue for those who campaign for just and humane policies towards people displaced by war and persecution.
Scarcely a week passes without various tragedies appearing in the media that expose the lived experience of such individuals.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis of refugees and asylum seekers stranded in the Andaman Sea, and the Straits of Malacca, is only the latest instance of such events.
Another recent story details the discovery of at least 32 bodies in Thailand’s Songkhla province. The bodies, dumped in shallow graves, are suspected to be Rohingya people – an oppressed ethnic minority from Myanmar.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship in their native Myanmar. They often flee religious persecution only to fall victim to human traffickers peddling claims of safety and a better life.
A common thread embedded within these and other tragedies is the desperation of people seeking safety, freedom from persecution and a place to call home.
Such stories, particularly in light of the Australian political response to refugees and asylum seekers, may paralyse some into despondency and inaction.
The realities of such injustices can seem a world away and it often appears there is little that one person can do to help.
However, there are opportunities to provide practical support for refugees and asylum seekers in towns, cities and suburbs throughout the country.
The Lentara UnitingCare Asylum Seeker Project (ASP) has a long history of supporting some of the most vulnerable individuals living in our community.
For many years the ASP has assisted asylum seekers lawfully living in the community while their claims for protection are processed. The veritable maze of bridging visas and limited government support afforded to some of these individuals is perhaps best surmised as complex and grossly inadequate.
Many struggling to survive with no government assistance rely heavily on organisations such as Lentara UnitingCare.
In combination with material aid, casework support and other support, the ASP housing program is an initiative that links individuals and groups that own underutilised property with those in desperate need of housing.
Many Uniting Church congregations and individual members are deciding to offer property to support the ASP.
Marian (not her real name) is a lively Melbourne woman in her 80s who has long-standing connections with the Uniting Church.
Marian’s laid back matter-of-fact approach to helping others made offering a disused holiday property to house asylum seekers an easy decision.
“It was back in 2011 that I just thought ‘I’m not really using the property’, so I rang the Asylum Seeker Project and someone came out and we went to see if it might be suitable.
“The rest is history,” she said.
Marian made the decision to pay the property rates as a further commitment to provide practical support in the face of harsh policies imposed upon individuals being assessed for asylum.
Of a generation that lived through the depression, Marian is quick to point out the relative wealth of many Australians compared to those who have so little. Like many advocates, Marian is guided by the moral imperative to treat all people with respect and dignity.
“I am ashamed of our government – I cannot believe that they can treat people so badly,” she said.
“In some people’s books I probably don’t have a very privileged life, but in many ways I think I’ve been very privileged. So I feel if I can help someone else who hasn’t had advantages, why wouldn’t I do it?”
Since offering her outer-Melbourne property to the ASP, various individuals and families have had a place to call home. Many formed meaningful bonds with local communities.
Several former occupants of the property have gone on to gain qualifications and employment while continuing to live in the community.
“It’s very heartening to hear the community has embraced people who have lived at the property and that I was able to play a small part in that,” Marian said.
“A sense of community and home is very important – if you don’t have a home how can you have any sort of a life?”
This notion of home is a driving factor for the many groups and individuals who decide to offer underutilised property to house refugees and asylum seekers through the ASP.
There are currently 16 other properties that have been provided to house people seeking asylum, many of whom would otherwise face homelessness.
North Essendon Uniting Church is an active congregation involved in a range of local community support work. The members also made the decision to offer property for the ASP.
Rev Fran Barber said the congregation began discussing the option to offer the property late last year. It now houses five people seeking asylum.
“The congregation considered the missional needs in our area and one suggestion from the start was offering a property to the ASP housing program,” she said.
“There was a feeling amongst the congregation that we’ve got this house and it can’t be left empty, so let’s try and do something really positive with it.”
The church arranged for a Lentara UnitingCare staff member to come and speak with the congregation about the agency’s work supporting refugees and asylum seekers.
“I think it was really helpful to have a representative from Lentara speak with us, because we hadn’t fully appreciated how little asylum seekers actually live with,” Ms Barber said.
“They don’t have access to anything really – other than 30 odd dollars a week.
“There’s no Medicare and no legal rights to work – I think once any reasonable person starts to think about what that would be like, you really just want to help.”
Like many congregations, the North Essendon Uniting Church was committed to assist in any practical way possible. In doing so the church join a host of groups working towards a shift in the national discussion surrounding displaced peoples who seek safety and a place to call home.
“In our church there is great discomfort with the way Australia is presenting itself to the world,” Ms Barber said.
“The act of offering a property is really subverting the national narrative about asylum seekers.
“Subversion is a strong word but in the current climate of politicisation of this issue it is a subversive act to say ‘you’re welcome here’. We’re aware of that and want to make that stand.
For more information on the Asylum Seeker Project contact Lentara UnitingCare on 9326 8343.