Date published: Friday 8 March 2019
Whenever the topic of asylum seekers and refugees comes up in the media, I think about how my Jewish grandmother – Elza “Medy” Knacker – may have felt fleeing Slovakia during the Holocaust on a boat to England in 1939. As I’ve previously written, she must have been terribly afraid. She was 25 years old, poor and alone. She was uneducated and spoke no English.
In South Australia, Baptist Care runs a Friendship Program which effectively ensures refugees and asylum seekers – many of them fleeing persecution and war in their homelands just like my grandma – don’t go through the same thing she did. Refugees are matched with a trained Australian volunteer.
The Coordinator of Volunteer Programs for Baptist Care SA is Bryan Hughes. He explains that the program was kicked off in 2006 by a woman called, Hannah Brown. Since then, more than 600 volunteer mentors in Adelaide have been matched with people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds. The program aims to assist new Australians to settle in and connect with the community, forging true friendships with the volunteer they’ve been matched with.
Bryan explains that most community programs are targeted towards new arrivals, so refugees and asylum seekers, who’ve been in the country for a while, get left behind. The Baptist Care Friendship Program doesn’t discriminate – it doesn’t matter whether the refugee has newly arrived or not.
“We work with people who are asylum seekers on bridging visas, those in community detention, we work with people who have arrived on refugee basis,” he says.
Volunteer mentors register with Baptist Care, get some training (including in cultural awareness) and then they are matched up with someone in need. According to Bryan, volunteers are given ongoing support in their role.
It’s an equal relationship
Previously, the program was described as ‘mentoring’ – but Baptist Care dropped that descriptor in favour of a ‘friendship’ model. It’s important to emphasise that the relationships between volunteers and refugees are equal.
“Both the volunteer and the person they are matched up with are teaching each other something,” Bryan says, “For example, the person from refugee background can teach them [the volunteer] about their language and culture and their life experiences and so on.”
This applies in reverse too. Depending on the needs of their new friend, volunteers may practice English with the person they are matched with over a family meal. Or take them to the beach or a coffee shop for the first time. Or volunteers may just point out local facilities – like parks and libraries.
“They say that you can't feel that you really belong…in someone's country until you've gone to dinner at a local's house. And so just that, inviting someone through to your house and having a meal there, is quite profound as well,” Bryan explains.
What’s it actually like to volunteer?
Joanna Juers knew she wanted to volunteer – but she didn’t know where. So she hit Google and found Baptist Care’s Friendship Program.
“It sounded like a good way of stepping out and being brave in myself,” she says, and “doing something new” after “growing up in a monocultural childhood.”
“Once I'd been to the training, the first training session, I thought, ‘Oh yeah definitely, I'm wanting to go ahead with this,’ because they talked about how…lost people can be when they to Australia,” she continues.
Even so, Joanna recalls being apprehensive about the first time she met the woman she’d been matched with.
“We met at a café and we were both a bit nervous about it. We both tend towards being more on the shy side of personality. But she knew lots of English, so that was good. We talked about just ourselves, and family, and what we were interested in. We found out we're both interested in artistic things, the arts. Yes – so it was good!”
The pair took to meeting twice a month. They would go for walks, see the Christmas lights and play board games. For Joanna, this friendship has had a profound effect on her. She feels honoured that someone from such a different background has accepted and welcomed her. And at the same time, Joanna feels she’s giving back too.
“I feel like I'm making quite a significant difference for one person and to be doing that gives me a feeling of joy. Also, it helps me to gain perspective on how fortunate I have been in my own [life].”
According to Joanna, this feeling is mutual. Once when they were driving together, Joanna’s friend – who had already been in the country for four years – told her “that I'm her first friend that she’s had in Australia.”
“That was a tear-jerker,” Joanna confesses.