Marion makes a difference

Marion Bailes is part of a Manningham Uniting Church group making life easier for refugees and asylum seekers.

By Andrew Humphries

Manningham Uniting Church member Marion Bailes’ commitment to helping those less fortunate than herself has been a strong guiding principle for many years.

The retired GP has been at the coalface in helping refugees and asylum seekers adapt to and make sense of the strange new country called Australia they choose to call home.

Marion is part of a six-person group helping an extended family from Afghanistan settle into the country, thanks to a mentoring program facilitated by the Manningham church.

Manningham’s congregation has a strong commitment to human rights, with its MUC Connections group supporting and advocating for refugees and those seeking asylum here.

Group members actively campaign on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers and, at a more practical level, organise food, toys and toiletry packs for newcomers to Australia, while there is also a fundraising component to their activities.

Marion says group members are passionate about supporting, advocating and raising funds for refugees, both within and outside of Australia.

As part of its mission portfolio, Manningham congregation members also set aside a certain amount of money each year to go towards supplying medication for refugees and asylum seekers who are faced with high health costs.

Marion says the training involved as part of the Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia program offers an enriching opportunity for people to become part of a mentoring group or to sponsor a refugee family.

Since November, Marion and members of her mentoring group have been helping the family from Afghanistan settle into the community in south-east Melbourne, after the volunteers undertook the CRSA program.

“We have group members from a range of backgrounds helping this particular family settle into the country, and we mentor them and help them with a range of issues and questions they might have,” Marion says.

“They might need assistance with issues like employment, accommodation and health, and also learning the English language.

“It’s really about helping them learn how everything works and assisting them to navigate life in Melbourne.

“I know that what we do is very much appreciated and family members often express how happy they are with our efforts.”

Ask Marion what motivates her passion for helping refugees and asylum seekers and she traces the answer back to her own upbringing, with two parents who believed helping others was the greatest act of kindness a person could offer.

“My parents were Christians and they were a wonderful model for me,” Marion says.

“If they had neighbours from another country they would go out of their way to befriend them, and that was something that stuck with me very strongly.

“It wasn’t only that it’s good to help people, it’s also the fact that it’s very rewarding to meet someone from another culture, knowing that you can help them and that they really value your friendship.

“What I have found is that you can gain so much when you meet a lot of very brave and resilient people, and discover what people from different cultures are like.

“It all just adds to the richness of our community.”

Marion Bailes dedicated her working life as a GP in community health to helping asylum seekers and refugees.

While the mentoring program is a new initiative for Marion, her passion for helping refugees and asylum seekers goes back decades, starting when she was working as a GP in community health in northern Melbourne in the mid 1990s.

“The community health centre at that time was near the flats where newly arrived refugees were accommodated, and many of them were from African countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and this started my interest in refugee health,” Marion says.

“Before that, though, I had been involved with helping migrants as part of my work as an intern at a hospital in Adelaide.

“It was part of the intern’s job to speak to these patients via interpreters and I really found this an interesting experience.

“In 1999 I was then working in general practice when I decided I would do a part-time Masters degree in transcultural mental health.

“As part of that I talked to Somali-Australians who had come here as refugees about their ideas around mental health.

“What I noticed was that these people didn’t talk about depression or anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders, even through interpreters, and I thought that was interesting and something worth exploring, given their background of displacement and trauma and having to settle into a new country.

“The fact that they didn’t mention these mental health issues made me curious, so I did the part-time Masters degree and went back to general practice and ended up working at a refugee mental health clinic in the east of Melbourne, where a lot of refugees from Myanmar settle.”

Marion recalls working in a clinic with a holistic attitude towards treating refugees, where nurses would talk to the families about their social situation and really find out what their priorities were in terms of health and other needs.

“It was a wonderful example of teamwork, with doctors, nurses, admin staff and interpreters all working together,” she says.

As she reflects on her many years of helping refugees and asylum seekers make a new life in Australia, the word “courage” often comes to mind for Marion.

“I think sometimes it’s very difficult for us to fathom the courage shown by refugees and asylum seekers in making that journey to a new country,” she says.

“Growing up in Australia it’s very hard for us to imagine the level of courage that’s needed and the suffering that people have gone through as part of that journey.

“In my work as a GP, I would talk to refugee families who had lost more than one child, and it was so hard to imagine how they could keep going and make a new life for themselves.

“There is a real level of admiration for them.”

Marion says the mentoring program offers a wonderful opportunity to give something back to those less fortunate.

“I think to welcome a stranger and to love others as we love ourselves is a very basic tenet, and the Uniting Church has a very strong social justice ethos around that,” Marion says.

“It certainly corresponds with my Christian values.”

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