REFUGEE SUPPORT IN BATHURST
The Bathurst Refugee Support Group was first established as an Inter-Church Group by Fr John Clarkson, an Anglican Priest, in December 1998. When he decided to try to set up the group, one of the first people he approached was Sister Pat Linnane, who was then the Coordinator of the Mercy and Justice Centre at St. Joseph’s Mount, the Convent property of the Sisters. Pat welcomed the idea enthusiastically and has supported the work with great zeal ever since. In 1998, I had just returned to Bathurst from Fairfield where I had been working in Refugee Resettlement so I was glad to join the group.
There have been many changes to the group over the last 17 years but the connection between the Sisters of Mercy and BRSG (as it is now known) has never been broken. Originally a Church Group, other good people concerned about Australia’s treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, asked to join so “Inter-Church” was dropped from the name to fit the reality. Over time the group got more organised and became an Incorporated Association in 2009.The aims of the organisation are to:
- Raise awareness of refugee and asylum seeker issues within the Bathurst community.
- Offer practical support and hospitality to refugees and asylum seekers who are either within the local community or who visit for short term respite.
- Raise and provide financial support to other organizations that directly assist refugees and asylum seekers.
- Advocate for the humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees by the Australian Government.
In this short article there is no way to tell you of all the things that have been done in the 17 years so I will cite a few.
Quite early the group became a Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS) Group and were able to resettle a family, Assyrian Christians from northern Iraq, in Bathurst. It turned out that BRSG was one of the last CRSS groups to assist a family like this before the Government changed its policy and introduced a tendering process whereby firms and large organisations took over the resettlement process. It was a great shame as the CRSS process had great educative value for the community as well as for the family concerned.
While waiting to be assigned a family to resettle, the Group decided to devote itself to community education, supplying small necessities to people in the Detention Centres and providing accommodation for groups of refugees to come to Bathurst for “respite” from city living and to introduce them to a broader view of Australia than the Western Suburbs of Sydney.
Larger groups were accommodated at St. Joseph’s Mount; smaller ones were given hospitality in homes of the members but most often with two of the ISMAPNG Sisters at their home. In June 2008, Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) sponsored a visit to Bathurst of a group of 17 Karen Refugees (who were accommodated at St. Joseph’s Mount.) The Karen (Burma) people returned to Bathurst in 2015 to dance their traditional dances at the celebration of the Bicentenary of the City.
The property at St. Joseph’s Mount has a cottage near the front gate that, from the 1950s, was occupied by a Dutch gentleman who looked after the grounds. After he retired (reluctantly) he lived on in the cottage with an unmarried son. When he moved into our Nursing Home the cottage became available for the refugee work.
Next, enter the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea!
From the beginning, in 2011, the ISMAPNG Institute Leadership Team showed great interest in supporting what had now become known as The House of Welcome. They immediately saw the state of the cottage and also the potential. They had the Institute property people come and look at it, draw up a plan for its refurbishment, engage the builders and oversee the project. So now the House of Welcome is a beautiful and comfortable dwelling for those who come. It was reopened by Phil Glendenning, President of the Refugee Council of Australia when he visited Bathurst on 10 December 2014. During 2015, 72 people stayed at the House of Welcome. The cultural groups represented were: Pakistani, Hazara, Iraqi, Karen, Hashin and Sudanese.
However, it was in very poor repair and we did not have the funds to do more than very necessary repairs. There was nothing we could do about the outdoor toilet, for example, as we did not have the funds! But Sister Pat and other members of the Group made it as habitable as possible with limited resources. At some point, the Congregation leased the cottage to BRSG for a “peppercorn” rent. Many a refugee family from Sydney enjoyed a few happy days there over the next few years.
Murray Valley Sanctuary Refugee Group Inc was formed in November 2004. It is part of a wider network in Australia-the sanctuary Refugee Foundation that was founded in 1988 by Sue and Peter Hallam in Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW.
The vision of the group is to assist refugees to settle in Albury-Wodonga by providing funding and support to those on humanitarian visas in order that they can achieve independence and integration.
How do we help?
- Providing ongoing contact and support, assistance with housing, employment, education, language and cultural activities for sponsored refugees.
- Fundraising so that more refugee families can receive our support.
- Providing interest free loans for airfares and settlement expenses.
- Supporting educational projects for urban refugees in Nairobi and for orphans and widows in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. These projects have been initiated by refugees currently living in Albury Wodonga.
- Much has been made possible by support of the local community and many volunteers: donations, film nights, garage sales, sausage sizzle.
RACV have generously donated 9 sets of driving lessons which is much appreciated.
Messages to: Bernie Evens rsm
Photo: Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission speaking in Bathurst in 2014 as part of BRSG’s community awareness raising.