Refugee Support: Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope
Dorothy Scott, Victoria Regional Meeting
Australian Friends are involved in refugee advocacy and support in many ways and through many organisations. One example is the small, Canberra-based, multi-faith organisation, Manus Lives Matter (MLM), which receives ongoing support from Canberra Friends.
Founded by the activist Brigidine nun, Sister Jane Keogh, MLM has campaigned for an end to offshore and onshore detention of refugees and asylum seekers and provided material assistance and one-to-one friendship to those who reached Australia by boat, and who were denied settlement in this country. MLM is also committed, in partnership with others, to assisting those eligible for Canadian sponsorship to resettle in that country. MLM has no paid staff – all its work is done by dedicated volunteers.
Victorian Friends on Palm Sunday 2021 outside the Park Hotel in Carlton where refugees were held
In December 2020 the Victorian Quaker Fund provided $10,000 to MLM for the first year of the Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope project. This was used to support 23 offshore refugees (at an average of $435 per person in 2021), with other donations by Friends used to support onshore refugees. Alan Clayton and Dorothy Scott are members of the inter-faith project steering committee. The following list gives an idea of the type of material support provided throughout 2021. In January 2022 the Thanksgiving Fund Committee approved a grant of $20,000 for the Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope project for the second 12 months of the project.
- monthly phone top-ups for men in PNG and Nauru
- phones and phone credits to others as required
- supporting living expenses of those still in PNG
- financial support to the families of some of the men in PNG
- paying for medical treatment and medication
- contributing to legal expenses
- supplementary food to men relocated to Nauru
- driving lessons to secure employment
- subsidising rent
It is harder to list specify the emotional and social support given to refugees through their one-to-one relationships with volunteers but offering the hand of genuine friendship is no less important than practical assistance. It can save the lives of desperate people at high risk of self-harm.
Canadian Sponsorship for Refugees
Manus Lives Matter has assisted offshore refugees to resettle in Canada via sponsorship by the Canadian NGO, MOSAIC, which partnered with the Refugee Council of Australia to create Operation not Forgotten. The Canberra “Operation Not Forgotten” Volunteer Group, which grew out of MLM, consists of 20 volunteers co-ordinated by Robyn Fetter, again on a purely voluntary basis. By May 2022 this group had completed and submitted to MOSAIC 133 applications, of which 105 have been accepted by the Canadian government to date. Thirteen men have arrived in Canada and are now beginning their new lives. Ongoing contact with over 100 refugees is maintained by the volunteers as deep bonds are forged through the long and stressful application process.
Artwork by one of the daughters of the Afghan families being supported
Plight of Afghan Families
Providing support for the families in Afghanistan of refugees in PNG and Nauru is now an urgent priority. Many of the families are in dire need due to their refugee relative’s absence and opposition to the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban, and/or their Hazara ethnicity. These families are now in hiding and in fear for their lives, their plight compounded by the famine and economic collapse affecting the entire country. To provide direct assistance to these families, Jan Trewhella, a MLM volunteer, established Our Afghan Families (OAF), and two families have been assisted to escape Afghanistan, a perilous process. Jan Trewhella describes the Afghan refugees in offshore detention as
physically and mentally damaged and broken men … they have lost all hope of a future for themselves and their families and with that, some have also lost their sanity and their will to live. Meanwhile their families, continue to be at serious risk of persecution, torture and death with the return of the Taliban to power.
At the first steering committee meeting of the Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope project this year, $2,000 of the Thanksgiving Fund grant to MLM was allocated to supporting these Afghan families. To date, individual Friends have matched that amount, but it remains a major struggle to secure the $3,400 in total required each month to sustain eight families in Afghanistan. I pray for the day when these families can be reunited in Canada.
Observations and Reflections
As a retired social worker, my involvement with Manus Lives Matter leads me to offer three observations.
- The organic process by which Manus Lives Matter arose from an individual’s “leading” into an inter-faith network, and gave rise to new groups, is inspiring yet being outside the formal charitable sector (without “deductible gift recipient status” etc) leaves its vital work badly underfunded.
- Small groups of committed volunteers can adapt and individualise responses to refugees and offer the precious gift of friendship, so different from a “service provider-service user” relationship.
- Large NGOs (e.g. RCOA, MOSAIC) are essential to developing and “scaling up” game-changing initiatives such as Canadian sponsorship, but these NGOs need the “natural helping networks” that only small groups of committed volunteers can provide to individual refugees.
As a Quaker, my involvement with Manus Lives Matter leads me to offer three reflections which I believe have implications for Quaker grant making and Quaker service more generally.
- We can be most effective when we are part of a larger inter-faith network, thus harnessing a diverse set of skills and resources.
- Our notions of “concern” (“a weighty matter that disturbs the conscience and impels the concerned person or Meeting towards action”) and “leading” (acting on a concern) are profoundly important.
- Concerns and leadings of Friends, after being “tested” by discernment in Local and Regional Meetings, need to be prioritised and supported by Quaker funding bodies.
Friends wishing to support the Afghan families of refugees awaiting resettlement in Canada can make donations (not tax deductible) to:
Brigidine Sisters BSB 062904 Account Number 1060 2969
Please add the words “Quaker” and “Afghan” to your banking reference.
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