Salvos’ Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service – hope and help in dark times
For around 600 families supported by Salvation Army Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service, life is often bleak and desperate. While service manager Karen Elkington says the service is only able to scratch the surface when supporting those with deep and complex needs, at Christmas and all year, the small team works to offer friendship, support and some hope.
Every November, enthusiastic Salvation Army Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service volunteer Mounib starts counting down the days to start decorating the service’s humble offices for Christmas.
Service manager Major Karen Elkington says: “For the last few years, as soon as the end of November rolls around, Mounib – who is himself an asylum seeker – is in here with other volunteers decorating the centre.
“It is all part of looking after each other and our community members by generating some positive energy, which is very important in what is an often sad and challenging environment.”
Desperate need for asylum seeker and refugee support
The Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service, based in Brunswick (Vic.), currently supports around 600 households, predominantly families with children.
The service in its current form has been running since 2010, predominantly supporting those who have no income, or who receive minimum benefits (smaller than would be received by an Australian resident on a Centrelink benefit).
Karen says many of the community members have no work rights, and no access to Medicare support. So, she says, asylum seeker support and refugee support, is essential.
“Over time, we’ve seen a lot of changes mostly related to government immigration policy towards people seeking asylum. Most don’t have income due to government policy settings. So, we’re dealing with a whole range of people who are highly disadvantaged and after languishing in limbo for over a decade, many are also highly traumatised,” she says.
Providing essential asylum seeker support and refugee support
The service works under The Salvation Army Doorways banner, providing case management and specialised emergency relief such as food vouchers, Salvos Stores vouchers and some support with bills, public transport costs and more.
The service also provides material aid, such as clothing, toiletries, food parcels and, at Christmas time, children’s toys.
However, resources are significantly stretched with donations drying up during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns and additional government support ceasing post-COVID lockdowns.
“We’re really struggling to keep people’s heads above water at the moment,” Karen says.
“It’s tough times. It’s tough times for staff. It’s tough times for the people walking in our doors. We can see people unable to pay their rent and they’re moving into smaller houses with overcrowding – multiple families trying to pay rent. We’re seeing exploitation of people, being paid something like $10 a day for doing cash in hand work, simply because they’re so desperate.
“We’re seeing some really dire stuff – very heavily exploitative type stuff - because people are so disadvantaged.”
Gift of hope for Christmas for asylum seeker and refugee families
Because of the hardship many community members and volunteers face, those involved with the service work to make Christmas special in some way. Despite culturally and religiously diverse backgrounds, many community members are excited to celebrate Christmas as part of Australian culture.
“And, of course, everyone loves to give a gift to their child,” Karen says with a smile.
Every December, a team of enthusiastic volunteers and workers set up a large space full of gifts as a free ‘toy store’ from donated toys, so that asylum seeker and refugee parents in need of support can come and choose gifts for their children.
Karen says: “Our client group are ever so appreciative. We are only scratching the surface of what are very deep and complex needs, but they are so thankful.
“Many see us as a bit of a family. We’ve had people who were on Nauru or Manus, particularly Nauru, offered resettlement in the United States, in a horrible people swap deal made years ago.
“Now … some of those families are heading off to the United States. We’ve had a few who’ve come here and have been in tears and wanted to say goodbye to us, saying, ‘You’re like our family.’ They’ll come in and say, ‘Ever since we got released from the detention centre, you’ve helped us, you’ve given us gifts for our kids at Christmas time. You’ve been so kind to us,'” she says.
For Karen, who is a Salvation Army minister (officer) as well as service manager, Christmas has great significance and relevance.
She says: “What actually strikes me is that – and I often remind people of this – Jesus himself was a refugee as a baby, or more likely a toddler. He and his family were escaping authorities wanting to murder him.
“And there was all this shame around his mother Mary, this young Jewish woman who was pregnant out of wedlock. The family clearly didn’t believe the story that an angel came along and that’s how she got pregnant. That’s why they gave birth in a stable – none of the family wanted to put them up. She was rejected.”
Karen says: “You just read on and on, and you think, ‘It was a tough gig.’ And what we’re doing in our work here is tough. It’s not pretty. It’s not nice. It’s difficult, it’s challenging.
“The gospel stories talk about God reaching out to us with love.
“That’s what we do with our asylum seeker and refugee families. We reach out to them with love, with the heart of Jesus. He showed greatest love to the most underprivileged, the hurting, the disposed, and we follow his lead.”