Rapid Response Circle Update May 2024: the good news and the challenges

As we end the 22nd year of Circles of Friends (founded in May 2002) there is the usual blend of good news and challenges.

Recognition for the vital role of all the volunteers in Circle of Friends Australia
A UniSA PHD Thesis completed in 2023 showed that Circles of Friends continue to occupy a unique support niche.  As was the original goal, the Circles complement what Agencies provide and do so responsibly, with compassion, with a minimum of red tape and in good time.  (Dr Alison Reid, “Band-Aids in a Battlefield.”)

One key component at the core of this undeviating journey is the involvement of people from all walks of life and backgrounds, in whatever way they can contribute, so that a wide, up to date range of information and ideas constantly informs those providing direct services through the Circles.

We need more volunteers
Currently the Rapid Response Circle is looking for 4 -6 new members for a range of roles.  If you are someone who spends a lot of time near their computer, or who is regarded as “houseproud” or “fussy,” or who doesn’t mind 80 km or so round trips to make deliveries, you could be  just the person needed.  For an outline of what is involved in one  of these roles, please contact Tricia Dundon (Convenor of the Rapid Response Circle)

Dire state of Asylum seekers across Australia: How the Rapid Response Circle is helping
Australia wide about 15 000 people seeking asylum are living in deep poverty and facing destitution.  More than 30 000 people who have sought protection in Australia do not have access to Medicare. (Refugee Council of Australia, 2024).

The type of temporary visas that an asylum seekers is on determines critical things like their right to work or study and, for a minority, access to Medicare (basic healthcare).  Amongst the asylum seekers the Rapid Response Circle supports are two men with no right to work or study; the  Circle covers rent and modest living expenses. The Rapid Response Circle also provides living expenses and part rent for two other men and a family of six where all the adults have work rights but remain unemployed.

Generally, the Rapid Response Circle partners with the SOS for Asylum Seekers Circle with the latter paying rent and the Rapid Response Circle paying living expenses and bills.  Expenditure by the Rapid Response Circle, on this cohort of asylum seekers alone, totals at least $4600 each month.  Total monthly expenditure is around $8000 per month.

During April 2024, in our triage role, the Rapid Response Circle received 11 new requests for help from workers at ARA, AMES, STTARS and the Salvation Army City Outreach team. Four were assisted by Blackwood/Hills Circle, Willunga Circle  and St Ignatius Refugee Education Circle.  The Rapid Response Circle responded to the remainder which included (unusually) a CPAP machine for a man with serious cardiac and other health challenges, a mobile phone for a homeless asylum seeker with no bank account or income and a particular heater for a woman with health issues.

Rapid Response Circle’s regular monthly income from donors is around $2000, which is a remarkable amount in the current economic climate in South Australia.  Regular weekly contributions of $5 become $260 over the year or $5720 over the 22 years we have been operating.  This amount, or more, is what some of the founding members of Circle of Friends have contributed. Significant supplementary grants have come from the Suzanne Elliot Trust Fund and, this year, Rapid Response Circle  and SOS for Asylum Seekers Circle each received $10,000 and $5,000 respectively from the Catholic Church Insurances Community Foundation.  A further $5000 from an anonymous donor was an unexpected boost and greatly appreciated.

Every donation, no matter how small it seems, helps build a solid amount of money that enables fast responses to calls for help.  In summer it meant up front motel costs could be paid within hours for a woman with two children who had nowhere to go on a 40-degree day, due to violence from her husband.  During this same burst of hot weather, fans were also purchased and delivered to three mothers unable to keep their babies cool.

As always, thanks to all of you who have contributed in any way to this Circle’s efforts to support asylum seeker and refugees.  Without your involvement it would be impossible.

Hoping 2024 is proving to be a good year for you and there are happy months ahead.

Tricia (Trish) Dundon, Convenor Rapid Response Circle.

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Help Mohammed bring his Palestinian family to safety

Hello.

My name is Mohammed Sulaiman, convenor of Palestine at Magill Circle (133). I am a Palestinian from Gaza, living in Australia. I am an uncle of 6 children, the eldest is 10 years and the youngest is 3 months, all of whom are currently entrapped in Gaza, under bombs, and with no access to food, water, electricity, medicine, sanitary requirements or the most basic necessities of everyday living.

My immediate family in Gaza consists of my father, my mother, my brother, his wife and their 2 children, my sister, her husband and their 4 children, and my second sister. This is a total of 13 family members. My family-in-law consists of father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and my brother-in-law. Both of our families lost their homes in the north of Gaza, which has been comprehensively bombarded by Israel.

I am a permanent resident of Australia. I arrived in Australia from Gaza, 9 years ago to conduct doctoral studies, and I continued to live and work in Australia post-graduation. It never seemed safe to return to Gaza with my wife and 2 children, who were born in Australia.

I have followed the war from outside, overcome by helplessness. I have not unable to take any action to save the lives of my family members from this seemingly unstoppable bloodbath which they have been forced to live through hoping that no missile will find its way to them.

As a son, a brother and an uncle of 6 young nephews and nieces, in Gaza, it is my duty to do everything in my capacity to contribute in whatever way I can to save the lives of my family members and their innocent children from the war machine which has claimed the lives of no less than 35,000 Palestinians, of whom at least 16,000 are children, killed in heavy, lethal bombardment of Gaza over the last 6 months.

For the first three months, this was an average of 300 people killed per day and four children killed per hour.

On 20 October, several of these missiles found their way to my uncle’s family house in Jabalia, north of Gaza. My uncle’s family who were in their house on that fatal night consisted of 18 members including my uncle, my uncle’s wife, their seven children, and multiple grandchildren. Israeli airstrikes hit their home in Jabalia, during their sleep, and my uncle, my uncle’s wife, 2 of their sons, 2 of their daughters, and 5 of their grandchildren were killed during their sleep. My own family, originally from the north, left the north and sought shelter in the south. They currently stay in a roof bedroom of a tenement which does not provide shelter from rainfall due to its leaks and with extremely limited access to water, food, and everyday needs.

We have completed visa applications for our family members despite many of them not having a passport or a travel document, and now all 16 of our family members have been granted their visas to come to Australia. This visa does not permit visitors to work in Australia. In addition, none of my family members have any form of financial access or support since there are hardly any financial services in Gaza at this time. It is unclear if they will have access to their finances anytime soon.

Following months of intensive fundraising and coordination efforts, several members of our families have left Gaza over the past few weeks.

My family-in-law have arrived in Australia.
My brother, a US-certified medical doctor, and his family have left Gaza, but will be staying in Egypt for a while longer to get their passports sorted before they join us in Australia.
My middle sister has left Gaza and is staying in Turkey.

My own parents and my eldest sister and her family are still in Rafah but have been registered with the Egyptian travel agency Hala to coordinate their exit from Gaza.

Flight tickets will cost around $1700 per person. Providing accommodation for 16 family members in Australia means that I must call on people to contribute whatever they can to help me to save the lives of my family members in Gaza. A breakdown of the total amount required to be raised is provided below as well.

• Visa application fees: $192
• Passport fees: $300
• Document translation: $200
• Flight from Cairo to Adelaide (one way): $1700

Total estimated costs leading up to arrival in Adelaide is $2392 per person, and $38,272 for all 16 family members.

Additionally, as they are not permitted to work under the “Tourist Visa” stream, we estimate the costs of each family’s stay in Australia will include:

• minimum living costs $24,000 per family ($1000 per week and a total of $96,000 for four families including rent over six months).
• personal effects $1500 (a total of $6000 for four families).
• international health insurance $1400 (a total of $5600).

Sincerely,
Mohammed, Palestine at Magill Circle

The Empowerment Network Circle supporting education of Afghan girls

Circle of Friend’s new Circle, the Empowerment Network (Circle 132), was formed a few months ago with the aim of supporting education of girls in Afghanistan.

In 2021 when the Taliban stopped girls from going to school, a group of people, mostly in Australia, decided to help by starting secret schools for girls in Afghanistan. They planned carefully and worked with people they trusted inside Afghanistan to find safe places for the schools. Even though it was risky, they managed to set up classrooms in hidden spots in different parts of Afghanistan and despite the dangers, girls started coming to these secret schools to learn. Over time more and more joined, eager to get an education despite the Taliban’s rules.

Running the schools wasn’t easy. They faced problems with money, safety, and logistics. But the friends never gave up. Now, they need financial help to keep the schools running. This is where the Empowerment Network aims to work, by raising funds to allow these schools to keep educating girls in Afghanistan. Donations are urgently needed to pay for teachers, supplies, and safety measures. You can help by making a one-off donation or a monthly donation. Alternatively, you can sponsor one or more classes. With just $150, you can support one class of 10 students for a month.

Despite the challenges, these secret schools are shining lights in a dark time for Afghanistan. With help from supporters like you, they can continue to provide hope and education to girls who need it most.

Circle of Friends helps bring Afghani teacher and her daughters to safety

We are pleased to share some good news with the arrival of Afghani teacher Laila and her daughters in Adelaide last month. Their immigration to Australia was sponsored by Circle of Friends through the Community Support Program Visa where individuals within the community cover the relocation costs for refugees trying to establish themselves in Australia. The application was spearheaded by Mij Tanith and supported by other local Circle of Friends members. After many fundraising efforts they were able to raise the necessary funds of over $60 000 and submit paperwork to the Australia Government. What followed was many months of delays and hurdles before Laila and family were finally able to gain the Visa and make the journey to Australia.

You can read more of this story on ABC News Afghan teacher migrates to Adelaide with five daughters after ‘huge’ community crowdfunding effort.

Well done to the Adelaide Circle of Friends group and all their supporters that made this possible and we all wish Laila and her children all the best as they adjust and settle into their new home.

Photo courtesy of IqbalStock on Pixabay

A Cry Went Up in the Desert: Documenting Woomera Detention Centre

The book ‘A Cry Went Up in the Desert’ provides a unique eye-witness account of the impact of the Australian Government’s policies towards asylum seekers and those who advocate for them over the period of late 1999 – 2000. These policies and actions sadly continue to reverberate and impact asylum seekers in Australia over twenty years later.

In this important book documenting the early stages of Woomera Detention Centre, editor Margaret Gunn has reproduced, with permission, a series of letters she received from  Rev Dr Tom Atherton of his attempts to advocate for people detained at Woomera.

The books editor Margaret Gunn has provided the following summary of the book:
In late 1999 the United Protestant Minister Rev Tom Atherton was living at Woomera and so saw first-hand the building of this centre and was at the receiving end of backlash against people who advocated for the people detained in the centre. At this time 800 or so American service-people were completing a rotation at the Woomera space research base when the detention centre began to be constructed in the area. Surprised by this new development, both the Rev Atherton and the local Catholic priest’s first response was to publicly ask the Minister for Immigration for air-conditioning in the 1950s brick huts on the Woomera town construction site which were to be used to house the initial 400 or so men, women and children from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 

“The picture I have is of a prison-like enclave in the desert in which the 1,500 residents have rights which no one tells them about (right to legal advice, for example). They are involved in a process of evaluation of their refugee status but no one tells them about the process… and they have no idea when a decision will be made…” –  Rev Dr Tom Atherton, 13th June 2000

In response the Minister himself led the onslaught which enveloped Tom with the Minister of Immigration seeing the request for habitable accommodation being an unwelcome interference. This personal attack of exacerbated by Sydney shock-jock John Laws.

When Margaret wrote a letter of encouragement to Tom he responded and this began a 6-month exchange of emails where Tom documented confidentially his first-hand experience of doing what he could to help the detainees and guards at the detention centre.  Later Rev Atherton would say that Margaret’s letter of encouragement was the only positive letter he received amidst a torrent of hate-mail.

“I feel the need to tell this stuff confidentially to someone and you have been elected unopposed.” – Rev Dr Tom Atherton to Margaret Gunn, 25th May 2000

The 36 emails that Tom sent to Margaret were saved on her computer and recently she sought and received permission from Tom and his wife Judith to share them publicly.

As journalist Peter Mares writes of the resulting book:

“These important documents [are] a reference point for others, including future generations, to better understand, at a personal and visceral level, the pain and anguish inflicted by Australia’s immigration detention regime.”

‘A Cry Went Up in the Desert’ was published in 2023 and is available for purchase from the publisher MediaCom Education.