My twenty-something-year-old niece Maria Nguyen feels helpless about how the ALP and Coalition governments deal with asylum seekers: ‘It’s gotten to this point where neither show much compassion to these people. It’s almost no matter how you vote, you can’t really change [things].’
We are seated around the kitchen table at her house. Asylum seeker policy doesn’t often feature as dinner conversation in our family, but the outcome of the latest federal election has spurred Maria into action.
It’s a fitness goal of hers to run half a marathon; she’s slowly worked her way up to 8km with the Mother’s Day Classic and now plans to do 10km. Unlike previous fun runs, this time she’s raising money for refugees.
With Kevin Rudd’s PNG resettlement aspirations and Tony Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Waters, refugees and asylum seekers have been at the forefront of my niece’s mind, ‘I just feel like now more than ever is the time when the Resource Centre will probably need funds.’
What she’s referring to is the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. The ASRC is an independent human-rights organisation that has been supporting asylum seekers since 2001. It isn’t government funded and relies predominantly on donations. Maria first heard about the Resource Centre at the 2008 Global Health Conference run by the Australian Medical Students’ Association. ASRC CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis was a guest speaker and Maria recalls his concern for the plight of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. ‘He described visiting them in their detention centres: women and children who were treated as prisoners…He described mental health issues as well as physical health issues. Lots of attempts of suicide which is very distressing…Just his passion, his sorrow [while] talking about those sorts of issues struck me most.’
Karapanagiotidis encouraged those at the conference to volunteer their time and expertise once they had graduated. Maria has just over two years left of her medical degree but it’s something she’s interested in doing in the future. ‘These people really need it [the medical help], especially those who are still trying to seek refugee status.’
Alongside pro-bono health services, the Resource Centre also provides meals, foodbanks, legal and material aid, ESL classes, employment programs, case workers, community engagement and detention rights advocacy. Unlike the Government, the ASRC doesn’t ‘means test or merit test’ individuals and ‘turn[s] no asylum seeker in need away’(via ASRC website).
‘I’ve always thought about it since [Karapanagiotidis’ presentation],’ Maria notes, ‘even though I don’t volunteer there specifically.’
She and her brother do, however, volunteer at St Vincent de Paul Society’s tutoring centre in Dandenong, Victoria, helping refugee and migrant kids master their maths and English. The kids range from primary to middle school and come from a variety of backgrounds. Maria and her brother usually sit down with one or two students, returning to the same kids every week. ‘Some of them are quite behind in terms of their year level. They may have issues with English and on top of that we’re instructed not to ask about their past or how they’ve gotten there and what they or their family have experienced. But they could be bullied at school, they may have come here themselves in a refugee boat, they may have been tortured, they may have been exposed to violence. It’s a lot different to tutoring year 6 or year 5 kids.’
Had she done tutoring before?
‘Not at that year level. I’ve tutored medical students and that’s vastly different again…Most of the kids [from Medicine] probably don’t need tutoring, whereas these kids obviously have the need and on top of that they come from very complex backgrounds and they may have very complex mental issues, and so our induction sessions go through all of that. But for the vast majority of them, you see so much joy. You come in expecting you’ve got to be sensitive about these cultural things but they—they’re really just kids. They’re very open. They really do want to achieve and to become the best that they can be and we ought to provide them with as much opportunity to reach their potential.’
It’s poignant that Maria is raising money for asylum seekers and helping out refugee and migrant kids in her spare time. Both her father and mother were accepted into Australia as refugees, after fleeing Vietnam by boat. While Maria’s parents struggled to find their feet in their new homeland, they made sure their daughter attended the right schools. Having done well enough in VCE to get into Medicine, she is now part of the refugee migrant success story. Maria’s future is bright, which is not something many kids of similar background can boast. Those who were left to fend for themselves whilst their parents struggled to make ends meet, ‘they’re put at such higher risk of everything…of unemployment, of [lower levels of] education. And it doesn’t seem to be getting better.’
So why donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre? Why give money to asylum seekers instead of true blue Aussie battlers?
‘The Australian community…[need to] see how vulnerable these people are and how much need and support they require from our services and from ourselves, and that they deserve our help as well. They’ve made it here and they’ve chosen to stay.’ Grassroots organisations like the ASRC promote this much-needed awareness.
‘Australians forget how much immigration and refugees have given back to Australia and the Australian economy. Maybe not the refugees themselves but the next generation.
‘We need to keep in mind the long-term goals…If we help them now…I think they’ll give back ten-fold, a hundred-fold.’
Maria Nguyen will run her 10km as part of the Melbourne Marathon on Sunday, October 13. She plans to raise $1500 for the ASRC’s Run for Refugees fundraiser, and has already raised over $1000. Please help Maria blitz her target by donating at her ‘Run Mars Run’ page.