By Donald Moss
Imagine entering Australia as a refugee from Afghanistan more than a decade ago, leaving behind your wife and seven children.
Where would you turn for help? Who would be there to assist you in your darkest moments in this strange and bewildering new country?
In Victoria’s northwest, the answer is the Swan Hill Uniting Church.
The church’s Community Issues Group has been a strong advocate for refugees for more than 20 years and, late last year, its efforts were honoured with a Victorian Government award.
Group member David Hackett travelled to Melbourne to be presented with a Victorian Multicultural Award for Excellence for its refugee advocacy.
“I believe we were the only rural winner and it has given the community here a real lift,” says group chair Joy Jones.
The group began in 2001 when Swan Hill schoolteacher Jill Pattenden recognised that a large number of men were arriving in the town as refugees, with little support to help them settle in.
“We would have had several hundred men arrive here at that time, mainly to pick fruit,” Joy recalls.
“Jill gathered a group of Uniting Church members together and she was the host of the Community Issues Group the church had identified as one of our missions at the time.
“That group then took on the role of looking after refugees, and Jill did an enormous amount of work in that regard.
“Jill died in 2021 and we have continued that work, with David Hackett a real driving force in the group.”
Joy says there are about 50 refugee men in the area hoping to secure permanent residency and citizenship, and to also bring their families out from Afghanistan to join them.
“Most of them have been waiting for about 10 years and, as a result, their mental health is extremely tenuous,” she says.
Joy says the group offers a wide range of services to the refugees to make their life in Australia a little bit easier.
“On Wednesdays, they will come in and a small team of volunteers will help them to fill in any paperwork that needs to be done, and afterwards they stay on for a social gathering,” she says.
“On Thursdays, we run a women’s group, where English is taught, and they also take part in community events.
“Generally once a month we also hold a ‘welcome to refugees’ night and one of the refugee men or women in town cook Afghani food.
“We often have someone come and speak who will give them any information the refugees need, while we have also run mental health programs to assist them.
“The most important part of these regular gatherings is the opportunity for the refugees to get together and talk.”
When Crosslight spoke to Joy, she had just welcomed an Afghani family who had been waiting in Pakistan to come to Australia.
“Seven children and their mother have come to join Dad, and it had been 14 years since they applied to come here,” Joy says.
“The youngest child is 15 and he was obviously a toddler when his father had to flee Afghanistan.
“This big family is living in a one-bedroom flat because we can’t get them a house at the moment.”
Joy believes the Community Issues Group’s efforts have been a huge support to refugees struggling to find their feet in a whole new world.
“I think it has meant that Swan Hill has become a very friendly town to refugees and they are supported here,” she says.
Joy says she is proud to be part of a group whose values are so aligned to the Uniting Church itself, which is supportive of their work.
She hopes one day the group may no longer need to exist, with the town’s refugees receiving residency visas from the Federal Government and being able to welcome their families here from Afghanistan.
As for the award, Joy says it’s well-deserved recognition for wonderful work done by a small group of refugee supporters.
“Yes, we were delighted to be recognised, and a little bit surprised, but it’s an award that fits in with what we are doing,” she says.