Helping Our Neighbours

By Denisse Sandoval

Imagine leaving your country of birth in the middle of the night, without preparing, taking only what you can carry in a back pack.

Picture moving through darkness and dealing with people smugglers to get you across a border, not knowing what may come of this. Imagine having to take this journey as a last resort, because staying put would mean further torture and detention for just being who you are and practicing your faith.

I attended a meeting where I met a man this happened to. Saadat* (not his real name) spoke about his journey and mental health at the 13 June Community Forum on Refugees and People Seeking Asylum at Swan Hill Uniting Church.

Saadat recounted the brutal beating he endured at the hands of the Taliban, for merely having spoken up about the plight of his people. After the beating, he was informed that he would be picked up again by the Taliban and that he should hide. Soon after this tip-off, Saadat decided to leave Afghanistan. 

He ended up in Australia and arrived by boat in late August of 2012. Saadat is currently on a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV), a temporary protection visa that requires renewal every five years. On this visa, Saadat can work and be covered by Medicare so long as he remains in a regional area. He has chosen Swan Hill to live and work in, and despite his history of trauma and torture, he comes across and friendly and enthusiastic.

The SHEV visa means the Australian Government has accepted you as a refugee.  However, you will have to re-apply over and over again as punishment for having come by boat. Additionally, because he came by boat, Saadat is banned from being reunited with his family as he is not allowed to sponsor them for migration to Australia. He would have to apply for special permission to visit his family overseas, a permission which is not achieved very often and can only be granted under compelling and exceptional circumstances. He explained to the 30 people at the forum, representatives from community health organisations, local police and volunteer groups, how he has considered suicide on several occasions due to the deep sadness he feels as a result of being apart from his wife and his elderly mother. The thought of never seeing them again is at the forefront of his mind every day. 

At the Community Forum, we heard stories like that of Saadat’s, but also stories from the local Uniting Church volunteers and service providers struggling to assist people. Asylum seekers used to be able to receive 500 hours of free English classes. However, this is no longer the case and instead, volunteers at the Swan Hill Uniting Church are filling this important gap. Volunteers in the Community Issues Group at this church are also offering driving lessons, swimming lessons, and excursion trips. They are also undertaking the role of what a government agency should be doing, in the form of family support including provision of basic material needs, assistance with school enrolment, and legal assistance with form filling. The church members at Swan Hill are rolling their sleeves up and helping their neighbours, despite government cuts to assistance for people seeking asylum. 

While in Swan Hill I also heard stories from mothers anxious about their 20 year old children wasting away in low paid agriculture jobs, not being able to pursue their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, business administrators or social workers. People seeking asylum on temporary visas are not able to attend university because their temporary status does not allow them to accrue a HECS debt, having to pay international student fees to attend. This is a barrier which essentially means that university education is out of reach for most asylum seekers, with one study showing that out of 30,000 asylum seekers living in Australia, only 200 of them have attended university classes. This adds a further layer of otherness and marginalisation that an already vulnerable part of the community has to endure.

The Community Issues Group has been going since the year 2000.  That's when the social justice group decided that they would focus on helping the local Afghani men working on farms and facing difficult situations with little support. In the future, they hope to help the people with family reunion applications, currently prohibited for people who have arrived by boat.

When I asked Jill Patten, leader of the group at Swan Hill UCA, why she does this work, she replied “Because we are the church and our work follows the mission statement, sharing God's love and gifts.  All our work in the community with people seeking asylum is based on our Christian Faith.  This brings us into discussion with the Islamic faith and sharing our beliefs.” Jill’s last sentence there reminds me that there is no mosque in Swan Hill, and so the Uniting Church there has opened up its doors, allowing the local Hazara community to practice their Islamic faith there in the church hall, converting it into a Prayer House for both Sunnis and Shia to worships and celebrate life.

The Swan Hill Uniting Church has done heaps for their local neighbours seeking asylum, including shifting the perceptions of community members who weren't so warm to the idea of having refugees in town. They accomplished this by organising storytelling sessions where people told their stories of their journeys to Australia and why they left their country of birth. Sometimes just hearing someone's story can shift hearts and minds, as we see ourselves reflected in the life and struggles of another.

Are you looking for ways to do more for people seeking asylum? Would you like to plan a community forum similar to the one in Swan Hill? Join us for a volunteer planning conference phone call on Monday 26 August at 6pm or Thursday 29 August at 10am. If you are keen to join the call, or would like to organise a forum, email Denisse at denisse.sandoval@victas.uca.org.au.