The number of displaced people around the globe is at its highest level ever and we are challenged by Pope Francis and others to “welcome the stranger”. St Vincent’s Health Australia (SVHA) has partnered with CatholicCare Melbourne and the wider community in Eltham to do just that.
In February 2015 SVHA took ownership of a residential aged care facility in Eltham, some 25 kilometres north-east of Melbourne and next door to Mary Aikenhead Ministries’ Catholic Ladies’ College. A number of units on the site had fallen into disrepair and were no longer fit for residential use. Later that year, when the Australian Government announced that it would make an extra 12,000 humanitarian places available for resettlement of Syrian refugees, the SVHA Board took the decision to refurbish these units and provide accommodation for such refugees. The Board approved expenditure of $2.4 million for the renovation of 60 disused units with the aim of providing medium-term rental accommodation. These units are separate from the residential aged care and independent living facilities on the site so that there was no impact on the other residents.
SVHA, recognising that its expertise was not in providing services for refugees and asylum seekers, was pleased to advance the Eltham initiative in partnership with CatholicCare Melbourne. Together they are supporting refugees to adjust to their new home in Australia and establish positive links in the local community. At the same time the new arrivals build up a rental history, paying an affordable level of rent, in preparation for later moving into the private rental market.
CatholicCare has employed an on-site Case Manager and a part-time Tenancy Support Worker for the project, along with a volunteer live-in lead tenant. It has also received and coordinated support from other entities, including local parishes and community groups, which have donated their time, money, various household items, toys and toiletries to support the refugees. It is also understood that many donated items will remain with the refugees when they eventually move into more permanent accommodation. This collaborative project is expected to run for two years and then the accommodation will then be transitioned to affordable housing for seniors.
Neighbouring Catholic Ladies’ College (CLC) also wanted to assist the project and it is no stranger when it comes to supporting refugees. Previously, it had employed a young refugee in the Maintenance Team and another as a soccer coach. Staff and students had been providing their time and expertise to teach English to local refugees as well as assisting refugee families with donations of goods and furniture. Further, members of CLC were spending time with these families doing anything from cleaning to mowing lawns to playing backyard cricket. When a very small pocket of locals voiced concerns to the Council about refugees being provided with accommodation in the Eltham area, many CLC staff and parents ensured Council officers were made aware of their support for SVHA’s initiative.
Whilst the plans to house refugees in the formerly disused section of the aged care facility were generally welcomed by the local community, this did not stop some anti-refugee protestors descending on Eltham at a protest rally in November 2016. What happened in response was nothing short of amazing – a group of wise locals banded together and set up a support group entitled “Welcome to Eltham”. Inspired by a local species of butterfly, known as the Eltham Copper Butterfly and which was near extinction in the late 1980s, the group organised more than 6,000 welcoming paper butterfly images across the neighbourhood. Placed on trees and fences along with chalk-drawn butterflies on the footpaths and “Welcome to Eltham” signs, these images offered a means of peacefully responding to anti-refugee protestors during, what the mainstream media dubbed, the “Battle for Eltham”. Thankfully, the Police were satisfied with the way both groups conducted themselves on the occasion but the impact of the butterflies was huge. The “Welcome to Eltham” group has continued its support for the refugees by donations of household goods.
With the courage to lead and vision to work in collaboration with others with complementary skills, an important step has been taken by SVHA to assist refugees to rebuild a life for themselves and their children. Along the way others have heard the call and lent their support – this is hope in action.