Some notes from the Surrender panel session:

Loving Welcome or Fear and Hate?
The displacement of people and rapid rise of refugees is a global challenge. How can we as ordinary everyday people in local communities be part of Christ’s alternative of loving welcome rather than feel overwhelmed by the voices of fear and hate?


In what way you are currently involved with asylum seekers or refugees?

I live at the Salvos Community House in Footscray with Bron – House Manager, Maria and her son who are asylum seekers from East Timor, and Hawo and Omar and their family – refugees from Somalia.  There’s ten of us who live in and many others who work, visit or are part of the community coming and going.

How did you come to be doing this work?
I’ve been a member of several intentional communities, Urban Seed working with the homeless community in Melbourne CBD, Seeds City then Seeds Footscray… participation required asking of myself “who is my neighbour?” and seeking to live a life more engaged with those around me.  I remember intentionally working as an admin at Urban Seed – looking at the residents there and saying “I could never do that”.  It was only two weeks after I moved into the house at Droop St September last year that the opportunity to invite Hawo and her family to join us arose… you could say I fluked it!
I’ll be honest, I had ideas about what living there would be like – I had just moved in and was unpacking things and setting things up.  I felt both grief and incovenience when I had to re-pack things so recently unpacked to make room for these guys moving in.  I remember going for a walk with stuff running through my head, “How is this going to work? How can I make them feel welcome or at home here, when I hardly feel at home here myself? How can I teach them where things go when I don’t know where they go?” I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going and a street I thought cut through turned out to be a dead-end so I had to backtrack on myself the way I had come. As I turned back, I crossed to walk on the other side of the street and found a basket of clean clothing sitting out in hardwaste.  And I picked it up and I carried it home with me.  It feel like a symbol of Providence.  God saying, “I will give you what you need, when you need it and send no more than you can carry” and really understanding that not to be just practical needs but spiritual and emotional needs as well.
How has this work changed you and your community? What have you learnt?
The house has been a hub for lots of projects and having a lot more people living-in is a big shift in focus for the community, there are less spaces available for projects as more people need the kitchen, the lounge, the bathroom… these areas on the ground floor of the main house used to be common space and kept really tidy for external groups coming in, we just can’t maintain that when its lived in and used by so many.  This is a valuable factor in the community therapy model that sees us learn from one another by sharing life together. That main floor bathroom is used by Hawo and her family who are Muslim and wash several times a day prior to praying – water is splashed over the sinks and floor and then we walk in and out… it’s hard not to look at the “muddy” footprints on the floor and think it’s dirty.  Do they make my bathroom dirty or do I profane the place the prepare to pray?  Living together gives us the opportunity to confront our ideas of what we might consider is the ‘normal’ or the ‘right’ way of doing things. It’s a privilege, and a discipline, to lean into that learning curve. 
When Hawo and her family first came to move in we wanted to make them feel welcome so we put up a sign that said “Welcome” in Somalian and English, laminated a Somalian proverb about hearth fires burning indicating which cupboards in the kitchen would be theirs, made a noticeboard that had magnets with all our names, photos, days of the week, house activities… you know what? They weren’t literate in Somalian let alone English.  You set out with these good intentions and more often than not you get it wrong.  We all of us try to say and do the right thing and can often end up saying and doing the wrong thing – that is true of ANY family.
What is the best thing about it?
Moments of synergy in our multicultural and interfaith mix are pretty special… one morning I woke early and couldn’t get back to sleep so I wandered out into the garden and read 7 Sacred Pauses by the light of my phone, that’s a poetic, monastic rhythm of prayer, and as I came back in I passed Hawo coming out of washing in the bathroom to go to her prayer mat in the lounge. By the time Hawo has prayed, Maria and her son will rise to say their morning Catholic prayers together… we don’t all pray together, at the same time or in the same way but we do all pray.  The food is pretty amazing too!
What is one of the greatest challenges?
One of the greatest challenges for me is being an introvert and finding a balance of time by myself that’s fairly quiet, noise generally can be issue – for instance Bron does shift work as an emergency vet nurse and might need to sleep during the day – but as you hear the prayer ululations on someones phone as they move from room to room, the sounds of cooking and being able to tell who it is by what time of day it is, there is music, TV  and conversation (continuously!) that represents the rapid language and cultural assimilation  of our newest housemates, the soccer pitch is almost as likely to have a Somalian singing clap-dance as a kick-round happening… there is a rhythm, or a life-beat, to these sounds that shapes our sense of home…and I can always go out!
Have you got involved in any of the political dimensions of the asylum seeker ‘issue’? If so, how has that connected with the loving welcome you are extending in your context?
We engage in a few different ways, we’d attend rally’s and vigils, write letters of support, accompany housemates to appointments as needed.  Recently we hosted a picnic outside the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre on the first Sunday of Lent as a demonstration of the act of welcome we’d like to see extended to refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Australia. We invited our housemates to write the word “welcome” in their languages of origin on a plate and set that at a place at the table, creating space for the ‘other’ a symbol of hospitality and what we have to share… there is room at the table. We sang some songs from the Love Makes a Way movement and linked the event to the #LetThemStay initiative.
For people who are wondering how they might engage with refugees and asylum seekers, do you have any words of advice?
Well, personally, I’ve needed the intentional community model – to move in where the connections and relationships already exist.  I can’t make a case for connecting with refugees and asylum seekers over any other calling but I would encourage everyone to consider for themselves the question “Who is my neighbour?”.   Know yourself – do what comes naturally for you. If your feeling reckless, you might pray: “Here I am, send me”.  God is already at work in your neighbourhood and in the lives of those you know… don’t take the approach that you have to start up something new, ask instead to see where God is already working and how to get alongside.
What we do isn’t that “special”.  A sacred, ordinary day for me might look like going to a local cafe for a Vietnamese roll with Maria and hearing the latest on her VISA uncertainty, she currently re-applies every 3 months.  I can’t do anything about that, but I can listen and hold some of the fear of that uncertainty with her.  I get back to the house and work with Mohammed on some Newstart job applications, it takes us 2 hours to do four applications – it might be faster if I did it myself but that doesn’t develop his independence to be able to do it on his own. The apricot tree in our backyard is fruiting so I collect it all and start to make jam not thinking through the sheer volume of sugar required to see the project through – everyone raids their supplies to get me over the line and it takes finishing off 8 packets of five different kinds of sugar to get  the jam over the line.  We are all in this together, meeting one anothers needs and everyone has something to give. 
Is there anything else you would like to say today?
I think there is an epidemic of loneliness – not just for refugees and asylum seekers making a new start but all of us – despite our advances in technology and communication – maybe because of them.  What I think everyone is looking for is home, belonging and family.  How can we share our home? How can we invite people to feel belonging? How can we be family to one another?