Archived News Item

The power of one volunteer

Sydney-based doctor Catherine Powell wanted to take a break from full-time work in the hospital system. She took on some locum work but felt the need to do something more. Catherine had always been interested in refugees and how they integrated into Australia. She’d also witnessed some of the difficulties refugees experience through her hospital work.

“I thought it would be good to be able to help them out because support is really important for anyone in a new town and that’s even when you’ve got good English.”

Catherine pursued the idea of supporting refugees. She searched on the Internet and found Mercy Refugee Service’s Community Links Project. Toward the end of 2006 she attended training sessions, and by the beginning of 2007, she had connected with a refugee family.

Adel, his wife Hanan and their eight children were recent arrivals from an urban area in northern Sudan. Catherine believes their previous life in an urban setting has made it easier for the family to adjust to Sydney’s western suburbs.

“They have settled in quite well,” she says. “The kids have settled in well at school. The father has done really well and attended English classes… The kids’ English is really good, especially the younger ones.” But their resettlement experience has not always been easy.

On their arrival into Australia the family was granted permanent residency status, meaning they were eligible to receive Government supports. “But after the [designated] three-month period, things were still difficult,” reports Catherine.

The family was living in a four bedroom house in Wentworthville. While mostly suitable, it wasn’t close to services. Hanan, who speaks mainly Arabic, has a chronic illness which affects her ability to keep the family clothed and fed, let alone attend English classes. Adel is keen to work but he has a back problem which restricts his employment options, and with his wife’s illness, he must care for her as well as the children.

In her role as a volunteer with the Community Links Project, Catherine has been able to offer general support to the family but particularly when difficult issues have arisen. She says the biggest issue the family has faced to date was a home rental increase from $330 to $490.

Adel contacted the Tenants’ Union but was told it would be an involved process to dispute it, he might be unsuccessful, and that his time would be better spent looking for a new house.

Working closely with the family, Catherine presented a detailed case to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal and attended a couple of hearings which resulted in a win. However, soon after, the family received an eviction notice because their landlord had defaulted on his mortgage repayments.

Catherine continued to search for a solution. She wanted to avoid the family being evicted, placed in temporary accommodation and then relocated to another place that might expose them to ongoing disadvantage. She received guidance from various organisations to delay the eviction. Time was running out.

The catalyst for change was an article by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Adele Horin. Within days of their eviction, a Uniting Church in Seven Hills who had seen the story, offered the family a five bedroom house.

Adel, Hanan and their children are now happily settled in that house.