Bringing together diverse communities during Refugee Week

The Pilgrim Circle initiated a unique celebration fundraiser for Refugee Week in 2021, which fortunately fitted in the middle of two Covid lockdowns. At this event a panel of former refugees spoke about their experience of arriving in Adelaide as refugees, particularly the turning points and memorable moments of settling into Australia, to great mix of Pilgrim Church members and the wider community.  Panellists included Mwajemi Hussein (Congo); Mabok Deng (Sudan); Nirvan Abbasi (Iran) and Zahra Bayani (Afghanistan). The presentations gave many insights into the process of transition from living in a war-torn country to a country that may be welcoming in some ways, yet quite complex to navigate in terms of process, challenging laws and diverse cultural expectations births many remarkable stories.

The event was opened with Allen Edwards, welcoming all to Kaurna country. Allen Edwards who is deeply engaged with refugee matters (even before his experience of playing a key role in the TV screening of Stateless), gave a special welcome to the panel of former refugees.

A meal, warming the cockles of our hearts with home-made soup and bread, prepared the way for a story “Jesus was a Refugee” by Andrew McDonough, and then we heard from our guest panel of  former refugees who told stories of the highs and lows of escaping from their country, and the joy and the challenges they had experienced while living in Australia.

The work of Circle of Friends Australia was explained by Bruce Whyatt, who had been acting as treasurer for a number of years. Bruce told the audience how moved he was when seeing how many pensioners opened their hearts and minds during Covid-19 to Circle of Friends Australia to pay their whole Covid benefit into the coffers of Circle of Friends Australia, and how many in the depths of the pandemic continued to pay monthly donations or give help in kind in various ways.  He also explained how the funds received are dedicated 100% to assisting the plight of refugees and asylum seekers.

Individuals told us how the organisation and their volunteers are helping to feed many during and after the lockdowns, supporting study fees and rental assistance, and there was even a wonderful story of one person receiving a pair of prescription glasses (something otherwise out of the reach of this person).

David Winderlich, one of the original concept creators of COFA, told us how it all began, when he was asked by someone about 20 years ago, to look after a family who had just arrived in Australia. This request, so creatively responded to by David and the first “circle of friends”, had many others joining in (such as Christa Megaw and John Shepherd), have now grown to become a very remarkable charity to assist many, so readily and committedly, over such a long time.

Rev. Sandy Boyce, then minister at Pilgrim UCA and chairperson of Justice for Refugees, helped the audience to understand how the advocacy work of Justice4Refugees complements the direction of action work of COFA.

Libby Hogarth, a member of COFA Pilgrim, explained how challenging the paths of temporary visa application were and how challenging the strain of stress and anxiety was as experienced by applicants and their supporters (often COFA friends).  These temporary visa applications are required every 3 – 5 years, never to create belonging, but appear just to be a futile exercise in “ticking the box”, over and over.

With a rich mix of emotions, celebrating, hoping, and sharing difficult times, we marvelled at how good it felt when diverse communities met to share values, goals and hopes. Many in the audience felt uplifted by the teamwork done to assist folk with compassion, dignity and care and felt moved by the “invisible” work done by COFA.

Written by Liellie McLaughlin

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