Local community group Ballina Region for Refugees is having a big month, with a major anonymous donation amongst other news.
BR4R President Ruth Henderson told The Echo, ‘We rely fully on voluntary donations to run our programs. We’re partnered with different organisations around Australia who directly support refugees, and much of our fundraising comes from our monthly market stall.
‘That market is run by East Ballina Lions, who have been very supportive over a number of years,’ she said.
‘In May we were totally flabbergasted to be approached by someone in Lions to say that they had a friend who was looking to give some money to a good cause, and the Lions member had suggested why don’t you give it to Ballina Region for Refugees?
‘So we heard of this donation but had no idea it was going to be $10,000, which was just incredible.’
Ms Henderson said that coincidentally, at the same time last year, a very similar thing happened, with a generous local businessman phoning up out of the blue and donating $10,000. ‘So almost a year apart we’ve found ourselves in the fantastic position of having decisions to be made about how we best disperse this money.
‘It was a complete surprise, and obviously a very welcome donation,’ she said.
What will the money be used for?
Ruth Henderson explained, ‘One of the things that’s happening at the moment is the government is pushing through visa applications, and looking at them very very quickly.
‘Some people have been waiting eight years for this to happen, then all of a sudden in April the government announced it was going to push through all the visa applications for all those people who’d been detained offshore, whether they were still offshore or being detained in hotel detention, or in community detention – they were going to be looking at those by the end of June,’ she said.
‘That means for most people they’ve got very little time to prepare their application, or to find legal representation, and so half of the money will be going to support legal representation for those people seeking refugee status (many of them already have refugee status), but for longer term stays in Australia.’
Because nearly early everyone who’s given any type of visa these days is given very temporary visas, many people are in total limbo, ‘not knowing what’s going to happen with their lives’, as Ms Henderson puts it.
‘So to give people the best chance, we’re giving half the money to an organisation called Refugee Legal, that’s going to provide pro bono legal services to refugees.
‘The reason we’ve selected this organisation is they have partnered with something called the Good Business Foundation, so for every dollar we give them, the Good Business Foundation doubles it, which means we get $10,000 of legal representation for $5,000. That will make the money go as far as possible,’ said Ms Henderson.
Remaining funds going directly to refugees
Ballina Region for Refugees is partnered with an organisation which works with those in Manus, called Manus Lives Matter.
Ms Henderson said BR4R has also partnered with a group in Brisbane who are supporting those people who are in community detention.
‘These are people who’ve been given what’s called final bridging visas, most of these are six months or less, and they’re allowed to work, but they’re not allowed to claim any benefits or to have any formal training. So we support these two groups with monthly donations to keep their work going,’ said Ms Henderson.
‘With this extra money we’ll be able to provide a lot more support to both of those groups.’
The Echo asked how important the regular Ballina Market presence was for BR4R. ‘It’s been fantastic because it reaches the population of the community of Ballina regularly, every month,’ said Ms Henderson.
‘Not only does it raise awareness and encourage conversations with people as they approach our stall, it also gives us a regular stream of funds. What we’ve found over the time we’ve been running the market is people will come and even if they don’t buy anything, they’ll give a donation, or they’ll buy something and give additional funds.
‘We’ve got quite a regular clientele that know we are there and seek us out. It’s been great. Whenever we do something in Ballina, people tend to know who we are, because of that market presence.’
Have there been changes in the attitude of local community towards refugees?
Ms Henderson said, ‘Ballina has always been positive, we’ve very rarely had negative feedback.
‘We run a roadside rally every fortnight outside the big supermarkets and shopping centres in Ballina on Kerr Street. We’re there for an hour and have placards on the issues of the day.
‘Almost always do we get 100% positive responses. People toot and wave. We get the odd negative response, but we’ve been pretty fortunate in Ballina that it’s a very accepting, tolerant community, and we are wanting to push that tolerance further by focusing on resettlement in Ballina.
‘That’s one of the goals we’ve been working on,’ she said.
Poetry competition open for entries
BR4R’s Bill Boyd told The Echo, ‘This is the third year we’ve run the competition. The winners and commended entries have been published in the past and we’ll continue that.
‘We’re trying to find a creative way to continue to raise awareness, and this offers people another way to engage, so it’s quite exciting. We’re already getting entries rolling in.’
Mr Boyd says the competition closes on 15 August. ‘We got over 100 entries last year, so we’re hoping that we’ll do even better and increase that number. We are also keen to have entries from people who identify as refugees or asylum seekers.’
Mr Boyd explained that entries were expected from far beyond Ballina. ‘Yes, this is a national competition, so we’ve had entries from right across Australia. We’re advertising right across the country. We’re anticipating entries from all over; any poets who are keen to enter are most welcome to send in up to three submissions each.’
The theme for the poetry competition this year is ‘It’s ‘Time for a Home’.
Bill Boyd said, ‘This is a national campaign that’s saying enough is enough, we’ve held people for so long, which is rather a nice way of saying we’ve detained them under terrible conditions. It’s time that people were given what you and I take for granted, a home and a place of safety.
‘So that’s the theme, and we’re asking people to take whatever approach they like to reflect on that aspiration and that desire, so that we can give all those people who are seeking refuge here in Australia a safe home.’
In terms of publication, Mr Boyd said, ‘we’re partnering with a journal called Social Alternatives this year, which is interested in critically engaging with contemporary issues, so a very good partner for us.’
Refugees in the news
The Echo asked BR4R President Ruth Henderson if she had any comment about the Murugappan family who have been in detention on Christmas Island and what they’re now going through with their daughter Tharnicaa in hospital in Perth.
‘The good thing about it – if there is any good thing about it – is that it’s raised the issue to the forefront of people’s minds. It’s made people really question what is the purpose of the government’s policy.
‘It’s absolutely cruel, and I think a lot of people now who perhaps may feel a little bit of sympathy or compassion, are really now feeling this is a step too far; letting the little girl become unwell, and then not giving the family and security, talking about third party settlement, without even discussing this with those other countries, let alone the family!
‘So I think the only positive is that more people than ever in Australia are saying this is not right. That’s a good thing. For the family themselves though, it really is a terrible situation, now to be hearing in the media that they may be going to another country must be terrifying for them, especially when they’re trying to focus on their daughter’s health.’
Do you have any optimism for change in government policy?
‘I have to say I’m not that optimistic,’ said Ms Henderson. ‘We have been working with groups across Australia to try to change government policy on the Community Support Sponsorship Program, and that’s where Australia at the moment has quite a tough approach to community support sponsorship.
‘We’ve been trying to get the government to think about changing that process in line with programs that run in Canada and New Zealand, where community groups form collectives to support settlement of refugees. We’re hopeful on that front, but that’s not an immediate solution for the family from Biloela,’ she said.
‘It would be lovely to think that the government had some compassion, and was listening to their electorate, but unfortunately I’m not that optimistic,’ said Ms Henderson.
‘I think what we need is a lot more people contacting their MPs and raising their concern; keeping the pressure up on the government, if we want any change.’
Once again, it seems, the community has to show the way.