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Rural volunteers making a difference in refugee lives

29 June 20210 comments

In country towns across Australia groups of quiet achieving volunteers are making a huge difference in the lives of refugee families.

Rural Australians for Refugees is an informal network of regional and rural groups supporting and advocating for refugees and people seeking asylum.

In the flat, sun bleached western districts of Victoria, one of these groups has helped welcome African refugee families who have found employment, educational opportunities and connections into the local community.

Bonnie Carter helped to found the RAR group in Ararat, formally known as Grampians/Gariwerd RAR, after becoming concerned about levels of support from refugees and asylum seekers.

Since then the group has partnered with migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia to support settling refugee families.

“Through AMES Australia we’ve worked with families settling in town. The first family was a husband who came first and worked for six months in the abattoir before his family came up from Melbourne,” Bonnie said.

“He wanted to get his kids out of Melbourne because they were starting to get into trouble,” she said.

“At the time housing was a problem. It was during the pandemic and the move was difficult.

“We needed three or four bedrooms for Mary and her kids and that would have been expensive. Some of our RAR members are also members of the Uniting Church and they suggested to do up the old Manse next to the church for the family.

Uniting Church Council members poured in their time and energy fixing up the house to get it to a state that it could be lived in and rented. The put in new carpets and flooring, painted the house and exterior and did a huge tidy up.

“RAR furnished the house through members’ donations,” Bonnie said

The next family supported by Bonnie and her group were three brothers from Ethiopia.

“We had an incredible response and we furnished their house as well as supplying kitchenware, linen and everything else they needed to stay in the town.

“Also, one of our volunteers Paul Ruthven literally gave up hundreds of hours to make sure the brothers could get their driving licenses,” Bonnie said.

The three brothers were also keen to start playing soccer and the RAR volunteers connected them with a local club and helped them acquire boots and equipment.

Bonnie said the episode prompted the group to set up a “sport support” new arrivals to join local community groups.

“The boys needed to establish friendship with people their age and others needed to be connected to community groups, so we saw a need and we held a one-off fund-raiser and established the fund,” she said.

“The fund is used to support these refugee families to join community groups – be it sport, or art or something else.

“The boys now have boots and a soccer ball and have started training,” Bonnie said.

The RAR group also makes regular cash donations to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne as well as donations of food, nappies and other goods.

Bonnie says she helped found the group about seven years ago partly as a way of making contribution to what she sees as major global issue; that of human displacement.

“I heard about a program called ‘a home among the gum trees’ in which people in rural areas hosted refugees from the city for a weekend,” Bonnie said.

“I put an ad in the paper and six people replied and that was the start of my work supporting refugees,” she said.  

As a result, Bonnie was contacted by a man named Terry White who ran a Rural Australians for Refugees group in nearby Maryborough.

“Terry said there was a lack of action in the Wannon electorate which covers Stawell and Ararat. He said he wanted to start an RAR group in in Ararat because a survey he had seen suggested there was significant number of people in the town who would be interested,” Bonne said.

“So we organised an event in the Town Hall in which we invited (lawyer, author and human rights activist) Julian Burnside to speak.

“We had 150 people attend and we asked them for a donation and their contact details.

“From that we got a list of people interested in forming an RAR group and we held out first meeting in November 2014. Now we have about 100 people on our email contact list. About a third are active and we can call on the rest when we need them,” she said.

Bonnie says volunteering to support refugees has given her great experiences and has widened her view of the world.

”I’ve met some really nice people and the whole thing has boosted my faith in humanity. I’ve met lovely people I didn’t know were out there,” she said.

“It’s also given me the opportunity to do something meaningful and, you know, kindness goes a long way.

“But really it’s been wonderful to meet people from other parts of the world. These are good people who can contribute to our community. And meeting them has widened my view of the world.

“And if you can help people, I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it,” she said.

Bonnie says rural people can take a while to warm to people who appear different.

“In small communities people can be insular and wary of strangers but having the families in town is starting to change attitudes slowly.

“And I think having the kids of refugee families in school is where change will happen. Seeing foreign faces around town is becoming the norm and people are realising the newcomers are not causing trouble,” she said.

Bonnie says Mary has joined the local Uniting Church.

“So we’ve seen them welcomed by church members and coincidentally the church has recruited a new Sudanese minister who starts in August.

“The communities are preparing a welcome with on his first day at the church, which will be lovely,” she said.

Bonnie’s RAR colleague Rose Rowe became involved with RAR indirectly through her work as a teacher at Ararat’s Marian College.

“I was part of the Justice and Democracy Group at the school, which was founded by the Brigidine Sisters, and through that I got to know about the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project,” Rose said.

“Refugees were high up on our list of issues in the group so it was a natural segue, but living rurally makes it hard to offer much concrete support.

“So when I retired and I found out about RAR it was a chance to team up with some like-minded people,” she said.

As part of her volunteering role, Rose supported one of the Ethiopian bothers to get a second job as a cleaner at her former school.

“He was keen to make extra money above his job at the local abattoir so I helped him with an introduction to the school. I helped him with the interview and he got and has been able to maintain the job, which is fabulous,” Rose said.

“Also, I have never taught English a second language but I thought I could help out in the sessions that are run each week for our new arrivals. So I support our English teacher.

“The students are so enthusiastic, they hang off every word and they so much want to better their English. It’s lovely to be able to help them.

“We meet in their homes and they are all big on hospitality so we get to taste Ethiopian coffee. They are so grateful and just want to repay what we are doing for them.

“But think supporting them is just so rewarding for me. It’s a wonderful program to be part of and I’ve learnt a lot about different people and cultures,” Rose said.

The current President of the Grampians/Gariwerd RAR is Leonie Foster.

“The families we have helped are grateful for what has been done to help them settle,” Leonie said.

“It’s been lovely that the experience of coming to Ararat has been mostly positive for these families,” she said.

Leonie says that the newcomers have been widely accepted by the community.

“We had one particularly family where everything that went to furnish and equip their home was donated by RARA and the broader community,” Leonie said.

AMES Australia Coordinator Community Engagement Mirrin Pedro has worked closely with RAR providing guidance and support to help them understand how they can best channel their enthusiasm and efforts to support the families.

Mirrin said that RAR members had also had the opportunity to upskill through other training programs to build capacity in their group.

“Bonnie, Rose, Leonie and supporters of RAR have done an amazing job. They’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting in making the settlement of these families a success,” Mirrin said.

“They have done a lot of fund raising, they’ve provided wrap around support, drop-ins, food and they’ve helped families enroll kids in school and get to medical appointments,” she said.

“It’s been a big achievement for them to pull all this together,” Mirin said.

“The volunteers have appreciated the opportunity to upskill and to support the settling families from a strengths-based approach, using the families own skills and resilience to continue their settlement journeys,” Mirrin said.