Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else. — Fred Rogers
68-year-old Margaret Tung spent her working life in education and training. When she retired she saw an opportunity to assist her community and jumped right in.
She retired towards the end of 2010 and a few months later began volunteering for the Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC) in 2011.
The ASC is a not-for-profit organisation that provides personal and practical care to people seeking asylum living in the community. The Centre is known as a haven for many who fled for their lives and are still fighting to survive in this country.
Last year, the Centre cared for more than 3,200 people seeking asylum including 814 children — more than five times the number they supported six years ago. More than 1,000 were new arrivals to ASC. They were people who arrived by boat and plane from across the globe including Iran, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
For the past seven years Margaret has been using her time to help people who have fled persecution and conflict settle in Australia.
“I had always wanted to assist people seeking asylum in this country, but I couldn’t because I was working. When I retired I thought this was my chance to help some of the most vulnerable members of our community,” she says.
Every week Margaret walks into the brightly coloured ASC office building, sits at her desk and sees what the day has in store. She sifts through the heartbreak and challenges that come through her door to help people in desperate need.
Half a day is spent with people seeking asylum, helping them prepare CVs and job applications as they come up. It’s work Margaret often takes home. Other days she spends her time speaking about ASC’s work to schools and community groups. Margaret was also instrumental in developing a half-day workshop that teaches job-seeking fundamentals in Australia.
She has even corralled family members to help others find employment.
“One of the women I worked with needed to pass a driving test in order to get a job. She had failed four times before and had no funds to pay for another test. She needed to pass. Her partner had no work rights and she was the sole breadwinner of the family,” Margaret recalls.
“I called on my relatives for help. My cousin’s husband is a driving instructor. He stepped in, provided her with free lessons and she passed!”
Getting a job is usually not that easy and Margaret worries life is becoming harder for people seeking protection in Australia.
Last year, the Australian Government began cutting back support to people seeing asylum. They are now considered lucky if they can access medical services.
“There is no safety net for people seeking asylum now,” Margaret explains. “When they arrive they usually have no relatives or friends here. No established networks to lean on. Many have experienced trauma. They have to struggle through the language barrier and some of them are not “work ready”.
“Yet they need to work to stay alive.”
Many people Margaret helps arrive in the country with nothing and are at risk of homelessness. One woman came and started to live on the streets. Others have considerable barriers to employment.
Margaret remembers one mother of a child with a severe disability. The Australian government had deemed her “work ready” making her ineligible for any financial support. She was desperate for work, but couldn’t leave her child who needed constant care. They may have fled the bombings, but they were still trying to survive.
Margaret empathises with their plight and the plight of many people seeking protection in this country. Her parents were also displaced during the Sino-Japanese war. Years later, when the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists broke out, her parents fled to Taiwan.
“They left my grandmother who could not leave her sick husband. After my grandfather passed away, my parents had to pay people smugglers to get my grandmother out of mainland China.”
Margaret came to Australia when she was 18. She left her home in Taiwan to study in Sydney. The Government of the day did not recognise her qualifications so she repeated Grade 12 in order to go to university.
Sydney was a quiet city 50 years ago.
“Nothing like the place you see today,” laughs Margaret.
“We are such a cosmopolitan city now and proud to be so. I have friends from Greece. I have friends from Spain. I am so glad I am able to make friends with people from all over the world.”
When asked if she now considers herself an Aussie, Margaret pauses.
“I have certainly lived more years outside of Taiwan than in Taiwan. Yet I still have Chinese sensibilities and experiences,” she muses.
“I believe we are the sum of everything we’ve been through. I like the idea of being a world citizen. To have a wider perspective beyond national borders that allows us to see how we are all connected.”
On January 2019, Margaret was awarded the Inner West Council senior citizen of the year for her service to the community.