Indooroopilly Uniting Church:Walking alongside those who seek safety
As part of our series on what makes up the Identity of the Uniting Church, we share this story from Indooroopilly Uniting Church in Brisbane about their work with refugees and asluym seekers - an outreach they feel called to do as part of their Christian discipleship and as members of the UCA.
At 13 years of age, Sushila* and her family took a terrifying journey by boat to reach Australia. They were living without citizenship in India, and feared imprisonment if returned to Sri Lanka. They spent three months at sea with minimal food or water, surrounded by endless ocean, not knowing if they would survive.
Thankfully, their boat was rescued by a cargo ship, however since arriving in Australia, Sushila and her family have continued to live in fear and uncertainty as they have faced Australia’s fraught and ever-changing refugee and asylum seeker policies.
After a year in detention, Sushila and her family found themselves adrift in the community. They came across the Indooroopilly Uniting Church (IUC) Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support Hub in Brisbane – an initiative which the congregation began in 2015.
Co-ordinator Malcolm Dunning said the centre is a Christian response to “walk alongside” some of the community’s most vulnerable people – a calling that is at the heart of the Uniting Church’s identity.
Twice a week the IUC Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support Hub opens its doors. A team of volunteers are on hand to provide holistic support to refugees and asylum seekers from across southeast Queensland. The main focus is to provide administrative assistance for people to complete the legal paper work involved in their protection visa application process – an initial 40-page document which must only be completed in English, and many subsequent forms and applications.
The centre has also become a hub for other support services including acting as a Foodbank distribution point, hosting other agencies providing mental health support and legal advice as well as emergency financial relief, and helping refugees make connections with other agencies.
Sushila and her family became regular visitors at the clinic where volunteers helped Sushila’s family apply for bridging visas, Immicards and Medicare.
Now 20, Sushila has competed high school and is soon to graduate as a nurse. Today she is a volunteer at the IUC clinics helping other families complete their protection applications.
Six years on from when it began in May 2015, the IUC Support Hub continues to meet a critical need.
The project began not long after the Australian Government introduced new punitive measures which applied to a group of around 30,000 people, referred to by the Government as the “legacy caseload”, who arrived in Australia by boat. The Government removed permanent refugee visa opportunities for this group and instead introduced a range of temporary visas requiring three or five year re-assessment of their protection claims.
Malcolm says the mental impact of this uncertainty for refugees living in the community is incredibly significant.
“A lot of people we see are single males, and the vast proportion came to Australia by boat. Often the men were sent by families, with the expectation, rightly or wrongly, that they would be able to have families join them.”
“Many came here thinking of Australia as a country with a strong humanitarian soul and a country that would take in refugees and assist them.”
“Sadly, that has not been the case. Instead we are seeing the erosion of Christian and Australian values, exemplified by the implementation of cruel policies including indefinite detention, the breaking of our commitments to international conventions, the naming of asylum seekers who have done nothing wrong as “illegals”, and the detention of innocent people for more than seven years, in many cases, where their mental health has been destroyed.”
For Malcolm, and others at the IUC, their volunteer work is a way of acting against those injustices.
“A lot of us felt that as faith communities, we need to stand up and put in practice the things that Jesus asked us to do - really putting our faith into action. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a social justice Gospel.”
Malcolm said the Assembly 2015 resolution "Shelter from the Storm" provided a framework for the IUC to operate from, and said “it was still a powerful guide for the Uniting Church today”.
He stressed the critical need for the Church to continue to speak loudly and hold governments to account.
“This is about fundamental human rights and reminding our politicians of the values of fairness and compassion – not just for asylum seekers but for all vulnerable people.”
“Part of what we do is try to put a human face to this challenge, and through those who come to volunteer at the Hub, we hope to educate people about what the reality is for people seeking asylum in Australia.”
Since it began, the IUC Refugee Hub has continued to adapt to the changing needs of refugees and asylum seekers. Aware of the diverse needs of its clients, they have established culturally appropriate practices to provide a space where people feel welcome and safe.
For many who come to the centre, it is an important time of social interaction and community. As Malcolm says, “this is what Christian community is supposed to be about.”
They have supported many hundreds of refugees from many different cultural and faith backgrounds, including people from Iran, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries. They are sons, fathers, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and include university graduates, farmers, IT specialists, graphics designers, fishers, shop owners, laboratory techniciansand homemakers.
The centre has close links with other refugee support agencies and is linked with the Brisbane Region Asylum Seekers Support Network (BRASS), a community group with ecumenical connections.
In 2020 when the pandemic hit, their welfare work accelerated to meet the rising needs. This included providing emergency food relief to more than 900 people from a refugee background, many without work rights.
Their 200 plus volunteers have included people from the Church, of all ages, as well as a wide range of people from the community, student lawyers and others from a wide range of professions, who have become engaged in a Christian community, acting out the Gospel.
Another asylum seeker, Ali*, describes the IUC clinic as a “hope centre”. He has only ever been granted a three-month bridging visa, having to constantly reapply to stay in the county.
“I'm just tired of so many paperwork, getting so many stressful calls from the department and every three months, telling me to go back. And it's really stressful,” Ali said.
“If it's not because of the clinic, I don't know what would have happened in this long time that I was struggling,” he said. “The only way I was over coming my stress was when I came to the clinic and (they were) helping me and gave me hope.”
For Malcolm, success is simply being there for people.
“The fact that people are able to come here, find someone who is here to help, and to walk away better than they had been before, that is what success looks like.”