Refugee Week 2013 – What’s the big deal?

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Welcome to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre © Elias Attia, 2013.

Welcome to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre © Elias Attia, 2013.

Refugee Week (Sunday 16 June – Saturday 22nd June, 2013) is “Australia’s peak annual activity to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society” (Refugee Week official website). In this blog post, we have invited Elias Attia to share with us his personal experiences working with refugee communities, specifically through his involvement with a charity organisation, SalamCare, which is closely affiliated with the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in western Sydney.

I had the privilege to first meet Elias during the development of the Faith, fashion, fusion: Muslim women’s style in Australia exhibition. Elias works tirelessly to help improve the quality of life for others, as reflected in his post below, and possesses a boundless energy and altruism towards those less fortunate than himself.

Refugee Week is an exciting time for human rights and community development. As with many other events on the calendar (especially those recognised by the United Nations), it marks a week where countries agree to take action to remind themselves of some too easily forgotten topics. “Forgotten” is an apt word, for the very purpose of Refugee Week can easily be overshadowed by the endless political discussions about boats, numbers and costs of detention to the tax payer.

Some of the SalamCare group showing Elias Attia on left © SalamCare, 2013.

Some of the SalamCare group showing Elias Attia on left © SalamCare, 2013.

My names is Elias Attia and I’m a social researcher and aspiring lawyer. I’m also involved in SalamCare’s Advocates for Refugees in Sydney (AFRS). SalamCare is a new non-profit community development organisation that works to improve social outcomes for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities in Western Sydney. Similar to Anglicare, which is fundamentally grounded in the values derived from the teachings of Christ, SalamCare is inspired by Islamic teachings and values, but it does not limit its work to Muslim communities or clients. Much of our work builds on what is already great within our local area and we acknowledge the aspirations that locals have for themselves and their community. AFRS is a community driven support program for refugees. For example, it involves a weekly detention centre visiting program where community groups and members are invited to meet with, and support, refugees. From time to time it delivers programs that benefit our refugee and asylum seeker friends in detention, and it is some of these programs which I would like to share with you in this post.

During this week’s visit to the well-known Villawood Detention Centre, I started my usual friendly conversation with the staff there and spoke to them about some of the upcoming events we had planned, specifically to coincide with Refugee Week. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, none of the staff were aware there was a ‘National Refugee Week’. This is not to say they do not care about refugees. Rather, it highlights the problems we face with insufficient dialogue happening with those at the forefront of refugee work. But alas, Refugee Week is also an opportunity to spread the awareness about refugee issues and to showcase the positive examples refugees have contributed to society. Hopefully, the issues I raise in this post will make people even more mindful and willing (yes, people like yourselves!) to get involved and promote this important cause.

A word about refugees

First of all, it must be pointed out that refugees usually face multiple levels of disadvantage because of their limited English speaking abilities (which is not always a problem), their familiarity with the local area, their race and religion and a possible physical or mental disability (some have a few). In order to sincerely address the inclusion of refugees in society, one must understand that a society’s tolerance for difference, and indeed our own, must be confronted. Refugee Week is, therefore, also about embracing an all-inclusive society and not just merely about highlighting refugee issues.

Take, for example, a recent instance of exclusion I witnessed first-hand at Central Station. Whilst waiting on the platform, I noticed a young man skirting along between the carriage doors trying to engage with commuters. He was clearly not as well-dressed as everyone else and he had long, flowing hair. Added to this, his poor English-speaking skills and erratic movements might convince an observant bystander that he was homeless or that he perhaps suffered from a mental health issue. Maybe he did not explain himself properly, or that he was too shy, but after making eye contact from a distance, I approached him to ask what was wrong. All he wanted to know was which train he needed to take to get home. While I always try not to think about one’s individual case too deeply, sometimes it can be challenging, and the fact remains that many in the community face disability, racial, sexual and religious discrimination – and refugees are more likely to encounter this than many others.

Volunteers at Fairfield High School for World Refugee Day © Elias Attia, 2013

Volunteers at Fairfield High School for World Refugee Day © Elias Attia, 2013

Refugee Week 2013 events

On World Refugee Day (June 20, 2013), we held a BBQ at Fairfield High School. This event brought together community volunteers, students and refugees to cook large quantities of meat for the asylum seekers at Villawood Detention Centre. This World Refugee Day event also raised awareness about Fairfield High School’s community garden and its mini-catering service at its commercial kitchen.

The event produced numerous pizzas, breads, meats and chicken pieces – all cooked in a traditional wood-fired oven on the school grounds. A group of school girls assisted with the salads and making the mini pizzas. The school staff were quite impressed with the program and the fact a volunteer organisation could pull together such a program on a weekly basis! We were also the first to use the stove to cook an entire lamb!

Following this event (when it was almost dark), the cooked foods were immediately delivered to the Villawood Detention Centre. An impressive gathering of some 30 asylum seekers and refugees awaited us, as all the other visitors had left. They had heard about this community BBQ and the fact a former Afghan detainee was responsible for many of the recipes.

Weekly Detention Centre visits

I first began visiting Villawood Detention Centre (“the Centre”) almost 18 months ago. A friend had started visiting a month earlier and relayed to me the concerns and desires of many of the asylum seekers. For example, how they were ecstatic when she brought in fruits that some of them had not tasted in years. Many also had a desire to meet with men and women of the same faith and country of origin, while others despaired at the food they were getting. We started a Facebook page called ‘Advocates for Refugees in Sydney’ and invited friends and local community groups to join in our efforts.

Tubs of food ready to be delivered to the detainees © Elias Attia, 2013.

Tubs of food ready to be delivered to the detainees © Elias Attia, 2013.

The overwhelming majority of community members, and especially those from Culturally and Ethnically Diverse (CALD) communities, have been extremely supportive of us. Various restaurants, businesses, factories and butchers have come forward to offer us in-kind support. Their readiness to engage with refugee communities is perhaps an under-appreciated fact in the broader refugee support community.

Early on in our program, for instance, we brought in 200 Ben & Jerry/Cornetto ice creams – now that was enough to feed everybody in the visiting area (including members of other refugee support groups and church groups). Let’s just say we did not choose to bring ice cream, but ice cream chose us! A community member kindly offered us this treat and it worked! It created a buzz in the broader community, encouraging more people to join our program and to share their experiences with others. One asylum seeker commented, “I have never tasted ice cream before…”. To date, more than 200 community members have taken part in our programs through a casual or regular visit to the Centre.

Throughout the program, however, I have also experienced many unnerving moments. For example, I once met with a group of Iraqi children who were completing their homework out in the cold at night because they wanted to spend time with their father who was a detainee. There was one man who reported that his gums were bleeding and stained his pillow while he slept. Despite our pleas, this went on for at least two weeks before he managed to see a dentist. Another man was non-responsive to any communication. He previously mentioned to me that he had mental health issues and was taking some powerful medication. It just so happened that on this occasion his mind had switched off during our visit. There was also a man about  to be deported. In following up his request to retrieve his passport, one of our volunteers came across a friend, who was completely unaware of the man’s whereabouts. His family did not know either. They reported his disappearance thinking he had run away from home.

On a more positive note, our program seeks to bridge some of these problems. Apart from bringing in culturally appropriate foods for the asylum seekers, we offer support, friendship and a sense of community for them. We have engaged refugees in the community to cook food with us, or in their own kitchens, and this has become a focal point for community development, more broadly, in the western and greater western Sydney area. We have invited disenfranchised youths, who were unemployed and/or had psychiatric disabilities, to cook and visit the detention centre. One mosque also welcomed Muslims and non-Muslims to cook food in their kitchen and during Ramadan last year, various Muslim communities came forward to support this initiative with us, providing extra attention to the detainees from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Afghan refugees visiting a volunteer in hospital © Elias Attia, 2013.

Afghan refugees visiting a volunteer in hospital © Elias Attia, 2013.

Many of the refugees we have befriended have big hearts. They are happy to give back to the community and to show appreciation to those who supported them. When the Afghan refugees discovered that one volunteer’s mother was ill, they did not hesitate to visit her in hospital. They have also given many visitors the opportunity to learn a new language, or to share stories about their lives back home.

SalamCare believes that by supporting CALD, as well as new and emerging community groups, we can facilitate an all inclusive society where strong alliances can be formed to increase our capacity to break down barriers in society. We appreciate the efforts of other refugee groups (whom we work closely with) and institutions. We support the efforts of refugee communities to organise and to develop a community of their own in a multicultural Australian society.

Written by Elias Attia