Hope for Asylum Seekers

 

 

 

 

Jill Parris, Victoria Regional Meeting

About four years ago I had a nudge to do something about refugees with Quakers, so called a meeting to hold the issue in the light. Only David, my husband, came, and I was so distraught that after crying through the discernment time I left the Quaker Centre to walk home and gather myself. Still crying I walked across the road against the lights and was stopped by someone who said “You are Jill Parris from Facebook, aren’t you? Are you OK?” When I said “Yes, I was Jill and No, I was not OK” she invited me to coffee where we talked. Sally Morgan was a teacher from St Josephs and worked with a class of asylum seekers who had been released from detention without the rights to work or study. She taught English and prepared students for school leaving. When she found that they had no prospects beyond school she set up pathways to work and university.

As I got to know Sally, I learned that her class was no longer a priority for St Jo’s, and she asked if it was possible to start a once a week homework club at the Victorian Quaker Centre (VQC).

This did not flourish but Sally’s students became familiar with VQC. When St Jo’s decided to relinquish her class, it was suggested by Colin, a member of Sally’s external support team, that a cooperative be explored. He led a series of workshops and within a few weeks the asylum seeker students were called to a meeting at VQC where we sat down and discussed the pros and cons of forming a cooperative, chose this path, selected a board, signed up as the first members and settled on the name Hope Co-Op.

What is Hope?

Over the next year we on the Hope board worked at consolidating our purpose and ethos, designing a Logo, and building infrastructure. Sally decided to do a PhD on Hope so that she could continue supporting her students and begin growing and consolidating Hope’s membership.

At the centre of Hope’s ethos is humanity, equality, agency, and participation. A founding principle of all Hope activity is that it is Asylum Seeker run. This means that any board decision always needs to have a majority of full members (Asylum Seekers).

In the second year Covid hit and our activities which had been face to face were forced online. Our major activities of fund raising and social gatherings stopped, and as a board we had to face the fact that several of our members and their families had lost work and had no government support. At a board meeting held to address these issues I raised the concern that I did not want Hope to become a charity. I will never forget the response “You may see it as charity. We simply see it as looking after our own.”

We decided that we needed to step in and begin providing food and some living allowances to people who were otherwise destitute. We were offered a space in which to pack groceries, and quickly gained support from community and religious institutions. The program used some volunteer members to pack, employed a member manager and paid some others to distribute food.  This was very successful as it meant that our members could do welfare checks while delivering food. Quakers happily supported the work with funds for living allowances.

The father of a member is a tailor, and he began making masks which Hope advertised and sold.

Distributing COVID pamphlets to the Afghani community
When it became clear that Covid safe messaging to some migrant communities was inadequate a few Hope members approached Community Services Victoria and worked to provide accurate and user-friendly translations on Covid safety.

More recently, when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, we were approached by a person at Monash University to begin a joint fund to support people stranded because of the war. We have done this and supported people known to our students, usually family members, who have found themselves destitute or needing to flee the Taliban. Recently we have closed this fund because we have members with relatives struggling in other countries and did not want to focus on one community alone.

Writing a book

Some Hope members had spoken of a desire to tell their stories, not only of survival but also about how they have successfully navigated a system which offers them no pathways to meaningful participation in Australia. I had time on my hands and a zoom account and so began the engagement with these young people I now knew and admired in recording their tales.

In most cases they didn’t want to focus on what and why they escaped but chose to talk about living in Australia as people without rights and how they have learned to make the most of every day. They also chose to address issues such as racism and exploitation.  Most wanted to hero aspects of their culture. Every storyteller found a way to share the exhaustion and stress associated with endless waiting for acceptance. Life is on hold until the right visa grants one permanence. And what is success without a home? Woven through these stories are snippets about us, the Australians who walk alongside them, and how our lives have intersected.  The story of how we became Hope Co-Op is woven throughout the book.

QSA provided funds to assist with printing the first run of the book.

Sally with our new book hot off the press

As part of the Pathways Project a fund had been set up to support St. Josephs students who gained admission to university. Throughout the life of Hope Co-Op we have prioritised fundraising to provide “living support” scholarships for members who could not otherwise attend university. All profits from our book “The Shape of Hope” go towards this purpose. We have also sought additional donations of $6,000 a year from individual or organisational donors. Each donation provides $100 per week towards living expenses and an annual Myki (public transport card), and so supports one extra student to attend university for a year.

We are working with a number of teachers and educators to get the book accepted as part of school curriculums.

 Business award

Hope Co-Op won the 2022 Victorian Multicultural Business award for the work we have done over the past few years. We are thrilled with this recognition.

 Funding

Recently we applied for and won a contract from the Jan de Voogd trust to extend the work Hope does with family members of our student membership. Family support is extremely valuable to university students, but Asylum Seeker students are often put in the position of having to care for their families while they work and study.  We are excited about the possibilities this offers, and intend to research our work.

 A book launch

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