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“Look for the helpers”

I was asked to attend a Civic Leaders meeting recently for a colleague who could not make it. It was in Auburn and held after hours.

I could not get someone to look after my son in time. I left early to pick him up and he came with me. It was an important meeting.

“What’s the meeting about?” my 11-year-old asks me.

“It’s about people who have fled persecution and conflict seeking asylum in this country. They’re about to get their only source of income cut from them,” I tell him straight. “The community is coming together to see how we can help them.”

“Oh.”

We’re in the car. I was concentrating on the road ahead. But I wished I could look at him to gauge his response.

“You’re going to hear some things at this meeting sweetheart. Let me know if it gets too much for you and we’ll step out for a bit. If you have any questions, you ask me ok?”

“Ok.”

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In the next few weeks, the Australian Government will drastically cut support to people seeking asylum. They are changing the eligibility criteria of its Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) to reduce the number of people supported by the program to fewer than 5,000. As of 28 February 2018, more than 13,000 people were receiving this support.

SRSS provides a basic living allowance (89% of Newstart – about $35 a day), casework support and access to torture and trauma counselling while people wait for their visa applications to be processed.

The sector was concerned. They had never seen anything like this before. Some of them were funded to look after a couple of hundred people over a few years. And soon, hundreds of people were going to come to them looking for assistance.

For now, the cuts only apply to single people. But many are worried others will be next. Pregnant women, families with young children and survivors of torture who do not meet the tougher vulnerability criteria will be left without any form of income to pay rent, pay for prescriptions or even get enough food for the day.

Five minutes into the meeting my son leans over and asks, “Why is the Government doing this to these people?”

I couldn’t answer him. I didn’t know.

“I bet you a lot of people in this room are wondering the same thing,” I respond.

The impact of these cuts will be devastating for many struggling to find employment due to their circumstances, including their uncertain visa status, unrecognised qualifications and lack of English proficiency.

Many in the sector warn overstretched agencies will see an increase in people seeking food, support to pay rent, utility and other bills. Hospitals will likely see more people coming through their emergency room doors as they are no longer able to afford their medications. Homelessness services will see more people waiting on their doorsteps for help as many resort to couch surfing or sleeping on the streets.

“Mum, what’s couch surfing?” is the next question from my 11-year-old.

Oh boy.

“It’s what people do when they have no home. They try and find shelter at friends’ places and end up sleeping on their couches. They can’t stay there for a long time, so they travel from home to home, couch to couch, to find a safe place to stay for the night. That’s couch surfing.”

“Oh.”

One affordable housing agency openly states they are already overstretched with a long waiting list. They encourage people in the sector not to direct desperate people their way, as they will not be able to assist them unless they are already on specific referral pathways.

That night my son learns about trauma, the desperate need for employment and what exploitation looks like.

At the end of the meeting I check-in to see how he was faring.

“You ok?”

“No,” he whispers. “I am tired and I am sad.”

Me too sweetheart.

But I don’t tell him that.

I wish I told him there were more than 100 people in the room that night. People from organisations across Sydney concerned about the plight that will befall those seeking asylum in Australia. That they were not going to let anything happen to them. Not if they could help it.

I should have told him that his mother was also representing an organisation that has cared for the vulnerable and marginalised in this city for more than a hundred years. That we knew this change was coming and have been planning for months to assist these people who will be affected by the cuts.

But I thought of it all much too late.

If there is a next time, I’ll encourage him to “look for the helpers”. I’ll tell him, and myself, that we must not underestimate the capacity of people to love their neighbour.

Featured image from Unsplash

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