Never met a refugee? It’s about time you did

For Jarrod McKenna, Refugee Week doesn’t just last a week. Concern for refugees arriving on Australian shores is a whole-of-life commitment.

Jarrod and his wife Teresa spent years opening up their homes and showing “hospitality to strangers”, as in the Book of Hebrews (“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Heb 13:2). But last year, they took that call one step further.

Stories about people seeking asylum and refugees

Jarrod and Teresa found a house big enough to accommodate themselves and their teenage son Tyson, plus two other families:  “some of our newest Australians” – refugees and asylum seekers.

Launching ‘The First Home Project’, the couple ‘crowd sourced’ a ‘community mortgage’ of $600,000 to purchase the Perth-based house and renovate it. On Christmas Eve last year, Jarrod and Teresa welcomed two families of refugees into their new home. 17 people in total.

“Our hope is that [The First Home Project] is not just like being on the Titanic and bailing out water. We really believe our project models an alternative to detention; that the Christian virtues of neighbourliness and hospitality are a real alternative to the cruelty our nation is practicing.”

“The biggest need we’re meeting with The First Home Project isn’t just about immediate accommodation,” says Jarrod. “It’s about transitioning people into Western Australia.”

Jarrod points to the current housing crisis in Perth, where only two per cent of rental properties are vacant at any one time. The tight rental market makes it difficult for refugees just arrived in Australia to settle in WA.

“These families will be with us for a year. We’ll help them connect with our networks of supportive Australians wanting to welcome them and befriend them. And we’ll help them with getting their kids into school, bank accounts and things like that.

“While doing all that, and learning about what it’s like living in Australia, they’ll also be developing a rental history. At the end, they’ll have a strong reference, a strong history and they can go from there.”

With so many families trying to get to Australian shores, two seems like a drop in the ocean. Statistics released yesterday by UNHCR show 30,083 refugees and 20,010 asylum seekers with “pending cases” (which does not include pending cases of asylum seekers who have arrived by boat) applied for protection on Australian shores in 2012 [full report here].

But Jarrod isn’t phased by the numbers. In fact, he is surprisingly optimistic about the impact Christians can make in the lives of refugees and asylum seekers.

“Our hope is that [The First Home Project] is not just like being on the Titanic and bailing out water. We really believe our project models an alternative to detention; that the Christian virtues of neighbourliness and hospitality are a real alternative to the cruelty our nation is practicing.”

Around Australia, other pockets of welcome are opening up for refugees too.

“There’s a couple in Fremantle who have opened their home. In Adelaide, there’s talk of starting a First Home Project there, with Activate Church. Another couple in Sydney are looking to start a similar project.

“They might not be buying a place to accommodate whole families, but people are realising that they can take in a refugee who needs help to get on their feet.”

Don’t have the space? There are other things Christians can do, but, quoting an Indigenous elder in his community, Jarrod says, “It’s pretty hard to love your neighbour if you’ve never had them over for tea.”

It’s a convicting thought for many Christians in Australia who likely have never met a refugee, or had a refugee in their church (at least, that’s the case for me). Yet Jarrod says becoming involved in the refugee community is one of Australia’s “best kept secrets”.

“It’s the best kept secret how much fun it is to come alongside these remarkable people who survived so much and have so much to give. Being part of their lives has been an incredible blessing for us,” he says as he encourages Christians everywhere to seek out refugee communities and “get amongst it”.

In the United States, immigrant populations of Latino evangelicals are one of the fastest growing segments of the American churchgoing community, according to recent studies. Jarrod says what many people don’t realise is that even US Christians on the right—Republicans who stereotypically adopt a ‘protect our borders’, hardline immigration approach—are starting to advocate for the rights of immigrants in the US, in part because of the growth they’re seeing in churches from the immigrant population.

In a similar vein, refugee churches are popping up all over Australia and Jarrod says we can learn much from their faith and resilience.

His own church, West City Church of Christ in Perth, recently joined Omega Pentacostal Church, an African church community with many refugees, worshipping together in a joint congregation.

“It was so life giving,” says Jarrod. “It’s a really radical thing in Australia, where perhaps the most significant place that people of different cultures and backgrounds meet is the local shopping centre.”

“I think it says so much when the church gathers around communion – to share the Lord’s Supper and consider what it means that all these different people are now one people. And that’s what we did with Omega. I just wish the whole church could experience how beautiful it is to meet and be ministered to these incredible people.”

Want to be more active in welcoming refugees to Australia? Here are a few tips from Jarrod on where to start:

  • Seek out the Welcome To Australia network. They run frequent events around the country, including upcoming walks in capital cities, to advocate for the need for Australians to be more welcoming towards new Australians.
  • If you’re part of a larger church denomination, ask them about their ministry programs for refugees that you could get involved in.
  • Tap into refugee community groups (for a good place to find them, click here). “You can visit asylum seekers in detention,” says Jarrod. “You’d have no idea how much it means to people to have a friendly person come and visit them; to hear that somebody is praying for them, that someone thinks they’re of value.”
  • Jarrod, who is also an ambassador for World Vision Australia, said the organisation is currently developing a training package for churches called ‘Welcome to My Place’, designed to help congregations think about ways they can minister and serve refugees in their area. “The resource will help mobilise churches…to be local support for Australia’s newest residents,” says a spokesperson for World Vision Australia. You can read more about that program, here.