By Paul Dobbyn
TO a passer-by it would be a non-descript house in a typical Dutton Park street, but the Romero Centre is much more than that.
The centre is a beacon of hope and welcome to the world’s war-displaced, driven to Australia’s shores in search of a more secure life.
Community engagement co-ordinator Rebecca Lim, together with the centre’s many volunteers and two paid staff, is keeping the beacon alight despite the best efforts of many to snuff it out.
The day of my arrival, the big old house, provided rent-free by the Mercy Sisters, was buzzing with life.
“It was even busier yesterday,” Rebecca said.
“We had a school holiday program for refugee and asylum-seeker children including some from the BITA (Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation) Centre at Pinkenba.
“An Indigenous man was playing the didgeridoo for them as part of an introduction to Australian culture and there were various other activities as well.
“There were also about 20 adults here, some volunteers doing the cooking, some of the children’s parents who are on community detention or on bridging visas.”
Helping to deal with the predicament of these people, living in the shadowlands awaiting the latest politically-driven whims of an all-powerful government, is Rebecca’s life mission.
She received a meritorious award from the United Nations Association of Australia in December in recognition of her dedication “to raising awareness and promoting human rights for asylum seekers within Australia and overseas”.
In the past 18 months, she’s had 60 speaking engagements plus deployments to places such as Manus Island.
Rebecca performs what she calls “this labour of love” in addition to belonging to Inala’s St Mark’s parish council and being a member of that parish’s St Vincent de Paul Society conference.
She described her job as “tough and demanding”.
It certainly is.
There are the constant changes in government immigration policy to keep up with, the need to provide support, both material and emotional, for already traumatised people who are striving to understand the requirements of life in an unfamiliar country.
“Then there’s the need to educate the community after the government and the media have so often given the wrong impression about these people and their motives for coming to Australia,” Rebecca said.
“And you know what: You talk to a lot of these people, if they could go back they would go back.
“It’s so difficult here in Australia for them, learning a new language, a new culture, missing their families and so on.
“Then there is some element of racism they experience – many Australians are welcoming but many are not.”
Rebecca described the Romero Centre, funded by Mercy Community Services, as “a place of welcome to meet the unmet needs of people from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds”.
“Last year, we documented some 3000 visits for support from January to December,” she said.
“We have all sorts of stuff happening here – women’s sewing groups and playgroups every Thursday.
“We’ve also brokered a men’s group run by the Capuchins in South Brisbane at St Francis of Assisi Place for the past year.
“The numbers range from five to 15 … the men are mainly from Iran, some from Darfur, Sudan, at the moment and are all people who’ve arrived by boat.”
Wednesdays and Fridays are always busy at the centre.
They’ve become even busier now government funding for migration support for asylum seekers has been cut.
Rebecca, who is also a migration agent, helps hundreds of people prepare for interviews, understand immigration letters, and fill in forms to assist them through the visa process.
She was scathing about the Federal Government’s policies dealing with these people.
“The current government policy is punitive, unwelcoming and proactively brutal,” she said.
“These politicians have done their marketing on the Australian public really well.
“Everyone is paranoid now; for example people are now associating Islam with Islamic fundamentalism and with boat people.
“I think (Immigration Minister) Peter Dutton should come clean and say the one (Man Haron Monis) who killed those people at Sydney’s Lindt Café did not arrive by boat; he came by plane on a business visa, and was recognised as a refugee, then got citizenship … all under the (Prime Minister John) Howard regime.
“The main point here is that this man was mentally unstable to begin with.”
Rebecca was clear on the solution to the so-called “boat people problem”, observing “people would always prefer a safer path to escape persecution”.
“We could increase our migrant intake from a miserable 13,750 and come up with some proactive solutions for regional processing, for example equipping Indonesia and the UNHCR (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to do the job.
“If you talk to all the people who come by boat, they say if they had some sort of certainty in, say five years they’d get processed, they wouldn’t take boat journeys with the 50/50 chance of drowning.
“I met one man who, with his wife, survived the civil war in Sri Lanka, then he lost her to drowning off Indonesia.
“He said: ‘We would not have got on that boat if we could have registered with the UN in our country’.”
The notion that these people are “queue-jumpers” is another example of misinformation.
“There is no queue,” Rebecca said.
“What happens is each country sends its immigration officials overseas and says, ‘Okay, this year we take 1000 Afghanis, 500 Syrians or whatever …’ I’ve worked for immigration; I know this.
“These officials cherry pick … if there was a queue they would say, ‘Okay, there’s 20,000 in the queue, we’ll go to the UN’s books and take the next 20,000 that have been waiting for a visa’.”
Part of Rebecca’s UN award citation recognised her “raising awareness” of the plight of asylum seekers.
Prayer vigils she’s helped organise have been successful as have recent art exhibitions, including one at Cleveland in Brisbane’s south featuring work of Tamil artists.
“These people’s lived experiences were so powerful we didn’t have to do much talking,” Rebecca said.
“Grown men were crying as they looked at these artworks.
“And this was in what you would call an ‘Anglo’ area.
“Afterwards we received some very powerful comments on feedback forms from visitors to the exhibition – some were apologising for Australia’s policy, others were welcoming.
“Others were more basic like: I now know where Sri Lanka is. I know who the Tamils are. I thought the war had finished and everything was okay.”
Encouraged by responses, Rebecca continues her work with great dedication, but she believes Christians in particular can do much more.
“I’m appealing to the Christian community to become more involved in this issue,” she said.
“We’re supposed to be welcoming and let’s remember Jesus was an asylum seeker.
“It’s disingenuous to keep praying for these people without becoming actual friends with them.
“Because, whatever these people’s stories are, regardless of how they’ve come here, they are human beings.”