“You cannot underestimate the power of offering someone a cup of tea, that you have made for them, just the way they like it,” says Joanna, a Community Engagement Officer at JRS Australia, providing insight into the impact that seemingly minor actions can have on life of a refugee or asylum seeker.
At the JRS Arrupe Community Centre in Parramatta, a suburb outside of Sydney, volunteers are leading the way with gestures both big and small. In fact, all of the community-based programs at the centre are run by a group of over 50 volunteers. These programs range from addressing long-term adjustment issues like social isolation and well-being, to more short-term concerns like food security.
One of the key roles for volunteers at JRS in Parramatta is managing the office’s food bank, a place where asylum seekers and refugees can find nonperishable goods, toiletries, and other items. Volunteers help people walk through the store and select items. Many volunteers also use this as a time to introduce newcomers to typical Australian products and cooking styles: it is an opportunity to share part of their culture.
For refugees worldwide, learning the language of one’s host country is essential for integration into local society. The situation is no different for displaced persons living in and around Sydney which is why English language classes remain a key point of intervention at the centre. In Parramatta, there are numerous factors that can inhibit refugees from being able to access English courses in the area. For example, many displaced people in need of English language training are parents who cannot attend courses with their young children.
In response to this need, JRS developed a program in which adults can come for a one-hour English session and leave their child in an on-site nursery. But the work of volunteers at the centre extends further than just formal programming: “The most important role for a volunteer…is actually, just in being there with the clients…and having human empathetic interactions with them,” explains Joanna.
For volunteers, this means spending time with refugees and asylum seekers outside of the projects they facilitate, such as food bank or English class. It is these basic but fundamental interactions that make the Arrupe Community Centre feel like home. To be part of JRS’s volunteer family, you do not need to be a superhero or have a PhD: all you need is a desire to help people and a heart for others.