By Robyn Douglass in Adelaide

As Europe struggles under the influx of thousands of asylum-seekers from Syria, Australians showed their compassionate face by announcing they will take 12,000 refugees from camps in Jordan. The Anglican Church asked the Prime Minister directly to accept 10,000 more, above the annual quota of about 15,000. The churches promised their “cooperation to facilitate the settlement of these refugees as best we are able.”

From bishops down, the church is mobilizing its forces. Various branches of Anglicare welfare agencies, already experienced at providing short-term accommodation and support for new arrivals, are preparing to extend their services. While Anglicare can provide the practical knowledge and know-how for resettlement, it takes a community to make people feel befriended, welcome, and at home.

Bishops around the country have written to parishes, in the words of the Rt. Rev. Tim Harris, assistant bishop of Adelaide, “to ask each of you how you might step up at such a time as this.”

The Sydney diocese’s response is well-organized. Kate Harrison Brennan, CEO of Anglican Deaconess Ministries, has offered to champion a “one-parish, one-refugee family” approach across the diocese.

“We will seek to help churches provide a warm and friendly welcome to refugees, regardless of their religion,” she said. “ADM will coordinate the response of these participating churches as they provide temporary housing to refugees, assistance in finding long-term accommodation, as well as friendly help in using public transport, setting up bank accounts and learning English (as needed).”

In Adelaide, social worker Helen Carrig has seen the practical response in action last year, when an extended family of 13 arrived from Africa. They were shunned by local authorities who falsely feared they may have been carrying Ebola. She turned to a local church, and parishioners came out in force with linen, blankets, kitchen utensils, and saucepans. Another plea at Christmas produced gifts and cash the family could use.

“I think if you sit around saying, ‘Somebody should do something,’ nobody really knows what to do,” she said. But a practical presentation produced “amazing” results. “It’s saying, ‘You are welcome,’” she said.

So far, so good. Australians are looking like people willing to welcome the stranger into their midst.

But on a darker note, many churches are already dealing with the grubby reality of Australia’s draconian immigration laws, and new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has reiterated that there will be no change to the hardline offshore detention policy.

There are nearly 5,000 asylum-seekers in Australian immigration detention; 1,579 are out of sight and out of mind in offshore detention camps in Manus Island and Nauru. They have been told they will never reach Australia, but be resettled in havens of peace and prosperity like Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says there are close to 3,000 in detention on the mainland, in circumstances remarkably like concentration camps. There are another 29,000 in the community on bridging visas, waiting for some resolution for their claims.

Inevitably, some of them find their way to local parishes.

In Adelaide, St. Peter’s Cathedral launched a petition through its church networks last week to support a family threatened with deportation. They are employed, settled, and the parish is devastated that members of their parish family may be sent away.

The Dean, the Very Rev. Frank Nelson, said there are a number of people who have become part of his city community, but who are in limbo. Many came here courtesy of people smugglers, “boat people” in common parlance; many have outstayed visitor visas. They have been allowed to stay on temporary visas while their claims to asylum are assessed, or until authorities deem it “safe” for them to return home. While they are here, they have no means of support or right to employment, even though they are keen, even desperate, to work.

Dean Nelson said the cathedral acts as a beacon not just for Christians, but simply for the curious. One such visitor came in to do some volunteer work and ended up making friends. Like many, he found support in the parish, whether that’s just a social network or formal help with English. They found out he was a keen cyclist, so parishioners obtained a bicycle for him and helped him link up with cycling groups.

The dean said there are many stories like this, but Muslim asylum-seekers, for example, are terrified that authorities back home may discover they have been consorting with Christians. What happens if they are sent back then?

How can one make a new start while constantly anxious about being sent back? Those in camps are infinitely worse off, with no useful occupations and no assurance about the future or the future of their children.

Perhaps the churches’ generous response to the Syrian crisis will encourage the government to believe that Australians are prepared to offer people in need a genuine welcome, not a grudging, half-open door.

Image: St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide, via Wikipedia

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