Susan Addison, Queensland Regional Meeting
What I believe is in me. What I do will prove what I believe.
This is how Abel Siboniyo used to explain his Quaker faith to fellow refugees in Africa when he was an Evangelical Friends’ Church pastor in refugee camps in Tanzania.
Last month Abel told Brisbane Local Meeting about what he has been doing for his African Great Lakes refugee community since arriving in Brisbane with his family on humanitarian visas in 2006.
Abel’s facility with languages (Kirundi, Kiswahili, French and English) has led to paid work as an interpreter for his community. This role has given him an overview of the everyday problems refugees face in adjusting to life in Australia, as well as opportunities to promote communication between cultures. He is acknowledged as a key contributor to the English-Kirundi everyday Australian picture dictionary, published by TAFE Qld English Language and Literacy Services in 2010.
Over and above his paid work, Abel volunteers his services at weekends and in the evenings, at times answering up to 70 phone calls per day, in support of refugees from the African Great Lakes region. “I focus on what nobody else is doing for them,” he said.
Abel carefully selected the colloquialism “a piece of cake” to dismiss with a laugh a suggestion that the long hours he is presently working (much of it voluntary) might not be sustainable. After all, his pastoral, advocacy and peace work had made it necessary for him to flee Burundi in 1996, and in the refugee camps had resulted in death threats against him.
When visiting families as an interpreter or assisting them to deal with settlement agencies, solicitors, police or the courts in south east Queensland, he seeks to understand their needs and to advocate for them. Officials often ask him: “Do you have anything to add?”
It was clear from his talk that Abel has much to add. He is able to interpret not just the language but the culture of resettled refugees. For example, he is able to provide the “big picture” when a family comes to the attention of an agency, the police or the courts.
He spoke of the limited support offered to refugees on arrival and the importance they place on finding long-term accommodation suitable for their often large families rather than moving every six months.
Although some 40 Burundian families have been placed in community housing, the type of housing provided may not always be appropriate. Abel provided two examples where, as a result of his advocacy, families were able to move to housing more suited to their needs. In one case, the local Member of Parliament was approached to intervene on behalf of a family whose accommodation was unsuitable for their two disabled children. In another, he successfully advocated for an isolated family to be moved closer to where friends could provide support for them.
He explained that although refugees may be physically living here in Australia, their mind is still in Africa with their families. Mobile phones make it possible for them to stay in touch with family members all over the world. However, their desire to be reunited with family members may lead them into financial hardship when they misunderstand the extent of support provided for holders of the different types of visas.
“Refugees are generous and they commit to sponsor family members to join them in Australia,” he said. For the “family reunion” type visas, the sponsor has to pay for each family member’s airfare, medical check-up, and solicitors’ fees to ensure that the application meets requirements. In some cases visa applications need to be accompanied by proof of DNA, the tests for which cost more than $1000, but do not necessarily guarantee that the visa application will be successful. If a visa application is successful, the sponsor pays 25% and the government lends 75% of the cost, which is then deducted from the sponsored family member’s Centrelink payments over the next two years. No rental assistance is provided for the sponsored arrivals. To Abel’s knowledge, this has resulted in seven cases where families have not had enough to live on and have had to survive on one meal per day.
Children going hungry to school has, in some cases, brought children to the attention of Child Safety authorities who then visit the home and may find nothing in the fridge. Fortunately, in such situations Abel has been able to explain the family’s circumstances, the differences between Burundian and Australian parenting, as well as the fact that families are used to surviving on less food and may well have food stored in places other than the fridge.
Another reason for children being removed from their families was that Child Safety authorities were relying on children, who had quickly learned English, to interpret for their parents. Some children had wanted to be placed with Australian foster carers in the expectation of being driven by car to school and acquiring as many material possessions as Australian children. “Now that we have harmonised with Child Safety,” said Abel, “we have no children in foster care. I tell Child Safety that every parent who comes to Australia wants the best for their children.”
Finding work in Australia has proved difficult for refugees who often have to take unskilled jobs. Domestic violence can be an issue, we were told, when men become very angry that they cannot find work to provide for their family and feel “useless”. Abel told of three men he had managed to get released from jail by explaining that they did not understand the culture of gender equality in Australia. “I advise them to take any work they can find,” he said
Abel’s advocacy work has led to meetings with politicians and a network of people from whom he can seek assistance on behalf of refugee families. His current concern is for whether a number of African families due to arrive in Brisbane this month will be denied accommodation, as has happened to some recent arrivals from the Middle East. The refugees have been required to name a family member as sponsor, even though they have humanitarian visas. Abel anticipates severe problems will arise if accommodation is not provided. He fears that without a rental history, these families will be unable to find accommodation. Worse, sharing their sponsor’s accommodation in such an emergency would then put both families at risk of eviction.
Friends were left in awe at the breadth and depth of the issues that Abel deals with on a daily basis. He told the Meeting that as a Quaker, he feels supported, knowing Friends around the world are holding him and his work in the Light.
Well done for the work of God.