Last week, I spoke to Tricia Rushton, the current convenor of the Blackwood Circle of Friends, a support group for refugees and asylum seekers.
The Circle of Friends was formed in 2002. Tricia became a member of the Blackwood Circle only five years ago, and cannot speak from first hand experience of those early days.
‘What I know about the beginnings,’ she says, ‘is that it was formed because people were so concerned for refugees who were coming from Baxter detention centre and just being dropped off in Adelaide.’
Baxter was Australia’s first purpose built immigration detention centre. It opened in 2002, ten years after the Keating government legislated Australia’s policy of mandatory detention for non-citizens without a valid visa. Members of the Blackwood and the Hills Circle of Friends used to wait at the bus stop in Adelaide to welcome released detainees and even invite them to stay at their homes. Some of these people had been in detention for several years and needed help to adjust to life beyond the high fences and barbed wire.
Today, far fewer refugees reside in Blackwood. Responding to their changing demographics, the Blackwood Circle of Friends decided to focus on three areas:
- direct support for refugees and asylum seekers
- raising community awareness and lobbying government.
Fundraising is important, says Tricia, because the group then has the freedom to use the funds as they see fit. Some of the things they have used the funds for:
- reunite a mother in Australia with her son after an eight-year-separation (He had been hiding from the Taliban in Quetta, Pakistan.)
- DNA tests for three African orphans so that they could be brought to Australia to live with their uncle
- TAFE fees for a highly-qualified couple who are refugees (Their original qualifications are not recognised in Australia. Without TAFE qualifications, they will not be able to work in their area of expertise.)
- dental work to relieve the agony of a pregnant woman
- bike helmets.
As good as it is to be able to provide help in this way, Tricia feels that fundraising and direct support is like driving the ambulance to help injured people at the bottom of a cliff. Their third focus area – lobbying government – is crucial, like urging the council to build a fence at the top of the cliff that will prevent people from falling off in the first place. She explains, ‘A lot of the things we pay for are driven by the policies that the government has.’ She talks about Temporary Protection Visas, which are only valid for three years. Often, refugees need legal help, or the services of migration agents to submit visa applications, and this can be very costly.
When I ask her about her motivation to do all this, she points to her parents, who were brought up in Fiji. (Her paternal grandfather was Welsh. He was the first colonial engineer in the sugar refinery.) Tricia’s parents were strongly anti-racist and moved to Australia for a new life. It’s a very inspiring story but too long for this post. I’ll save it for next Friday.
Initially, what intrigued me to about the Blackwood Circle of Friends was the willingness of some of their members to welcome strangers into their homes. For migrants to welcome newer migrants from the same town or village is easy to comprehend. I blogged last week about my grandfather’s shop in Malaya which housed new migrants from China. But welcoming strangers into one’s home is, to me, radical hospitality. Exercising this kind of hospitality requires a certain way of thinking.
Tricia puts it this way, ‘You cannot spend time just thinking about the world or the world’s people and their experiences without thinking: “That’s me; that’s us”. There’s no them. It’s us. To be alive is such a fantastic thing. If you look at the span of history, your life just fans up for this small time, and it’s a terrific opportunity, you know? You should not be leaving the world a worse place than when you arrived.’
Tricia sees her role in the Blackwood Circle of Friends as facilitating a community brought together by their deep concern for refugees and asylum seekers. The Blackwood Circle meets at the Blackwood Uniting Church.
‘The Blackwood Uniting Church is a community-embedded, wonderful institution led by a very visionary pastor. They are very supportive of our work, but the Blackwood Circle of Friends is not a Christian group. It’s a human group.’