Finding affordable housing in expensive inner Sydney is just one of the ways Bankstown District Uniting Church is helping newcomers from the Middle East settle into Australian life.
Hundreds of families have made their homes in this part of Sydney’s southwest after entering Australia under the government’s special deal to settle 12,000 refugees from the war-torn Middle East.
Led by its minister, Gaby Kobrossi, the church is extending the hand of friendship to the new permanent residents and offering practical help with everything from learning English to seeing the sights.
“Around this church we have maybe 500 [newcomer] families, most of them from Syria, and we do our best to build bridges with them,” says Kobrossi, who came to Australia with his Syrian wife from Lebanon in 2007.
From standing guarantor with real estate agents to offering subsidised rents for church-owned property, Kobrossi and about 30 of his church members do their utmost to welcome the newcomers. The ministry includes teaching English, helping them find work, get a car or a driver’s licence and even taking them out by bus to beautiful spots around Sydney.
“Housing is an issue,” says Kobrossi. “Renting is very expensive and I want to say to owners of houses ‘please keep the rate flexible for these people.’ Rent is increasing in an amazing way and these people can’t afford [it.]”
“Today I can understand why I am in Australia, for a time like this.” – Gaby Kobrossi
The church goes as far as negotiating with real estate agents on the migrants’ behalf. “In Australia, if you want to rent a property you need at least six months of history, so as a church we just talk to the real estate and tell them that we know the people and that we are responsible if something happens and because of that they say ‘OK’ … and they give them the property. So over six months they can build credibility and history, then from there they can go and find a place wherever they want.”
Being unemployed is a source of anxiety and stress for most of the people Kobrossi insists on calling newcomers. He says they stop being refugees or asylum-seekers as soon as they arrive in Australia, when they become permanent residents. “They feel like prisoners in their houses, afraid to go out because they can’t speak the language.”
So finding work is a top priority if they want to lead a better life than the one they fled. While the new arrivals receive income support from Centrelink, they prefer to work and contribute to their new country, he says.
“We use our connections, we use our friends here and we try to tell them ‘please can you find a job for us or at least volunteer work so these people can have experience to add to their CV?’
“Also we try to help them to get the White Card so that they can work as a labourer in construction and that’s the field where a lot of the Syrian men are able to find jobs and a good income. That’s why many of them now stop getting the funds from Centrelink because they want to be independent and [they’re] working the full week and making good money. So when they find a job, when they are independent, they can really live a better life.”
“To be honest with you, we are offering nothing. We are offering our time.” – Gaby Kobrossi
For this Lebanese native, who spent 20 years travelling around the Middle East while working for Bible Society in Lebanon, the newcomer ministry comes naturally.
“These people are our people … We lived such a life in Lebanon for 40 years of a civil war and we’ve been in a situation like this and I know very well how is Syria, how is Aleppo, how is Damascus and other villages – what kind of life they used to live. And they are here and today I can understand why I am in Australia, for a time like this. I’m here for these people and I’m with them every day.”
Kobrossi says he started planning to welcome the newcomers as soon as the federal government agreed to issue the 12,000 special visas. But it was more a preparation of the heart than of practicalities.
“To be honest with you, we are offering nothing. We are offering our time. We’re not offering food or furniture or money, we are offering our welcome, we are offering the word of God … and when we go back to the word of God we can see that this is the force of God to welcome everyone,” he says.
“Abraham was a refugee, Jesus was the first one in the New Testament who became a refugee or asylum-seeker. We give thanks to Australia, we give thanks to the Australian people, they are wonderful people, very humble people. They welcome these people with open arms and wonderful smiles. In our church we encourage people not to give donation – we don’t want their money, we just want their time. We just want people to mingle with them, people to say ‘here I am, I’m crossing over with you; you need some help with papers, you need some help with a JP or Centrelink or schooling – whatever it is,’ and we go with them.”
“They do not want a handout from the government – they want to work.” – Alan King
Retired car dealer Alan King is one of about 30 church members who commit to helping the newcomers in any way they can. King says he was inspired by his experiences at school.
“After the war we had migrants and I had a lot of my friends who came from other countries who struggled, who didn’t get the support that these people are getting now,” he says.
“What concerns me is the misconception about these people coming to the country. The media are putting forward something that is completely wrong. They say they’re coming here accepting the dole and don’t want to work. I’ve had friends say that and I’ve had to put them straight. They do not want a handout from the government – they want to work. They are so grateful that a country has accepted them and they want to pay back, like the immigrants from old – the Italians, the Greeks – came here to work.
“When we look at what these people did when they came here – Warragamba Dam, Snowy Mountains Scheme, and many other major schemes, without anyone teaching them language or how to get a licence or paperwork or anything. So the basics that we take for granted are what we need to impart onto these people.”
“Praying with them, praying for them, doing these necessary things to help them establish themselves is very important.” – Alan King
As well as driving the 25-seater bus that takes the newcomers out to beaches and national parks each month, King regularly trawls the internet for hours scouring car sales to help newcomers buy a car at a discounted price.
“It’s difficult for them because of the language. But the personal thing to me is the satisfaction that you’re helping these people to become part of Australia,” he says.
“The blessing we are getting from this programme is that people are actually coming to our church. And after church when we have morning tea we get them to speak English.
“The mere fact that they are coming to church is a witness from us to them. You don’t preach to them. I think praying with them, praying for them, doing these necessary things to help them establish themselves is very important.”
“They miss their parents, they miss their family, their brothers and sisters, they miss their churches, they miss their schools, they miss everything.” – Gaby Kobrossi
While the practical help is welcome, what they appreciate most is friendship, says Kobrossi.
“The only thing we need is to give time to these people. Build the bridges, build friendship; let them feel there is someone here that I can knock on his door and ask a question or … have a coffee with,” says Kobrossi.
“The government is supporting them with education aid and income, but they are really looking for a friendship – they miss their parents, they miss their family, their brothers and sisters, they miss their churches, they miss their schools, they miss everything in Syria and Iraq but they are looking in this new land here, which is called new home, for friends and we give thanks to God that in our church we are trying our best to build this kind of relationship with them.”
“So let us keep that light, the light of the gospel that came from the Middle East from the beginning.” – Gaby Kobrossi
At the church’s Easter service there were tears as well as celebration, he says.
“Each family brought a different type of food and we had … egg hunts and … music and traditional dancing. It was really wonderful, but at the same time you can see tears, tears of sadness, you can see tears of loneliness. ‘We are here, we are safe, the word of God encourages us.’ But at the end of the day they are human – they miss Dad and Mum and family and home and friends. It’s not easy.
“Yes, the kids can cope with it, the young people can find a way, can find a new life, but the elderly ones and the parents – it’s not easy for them, especially when you look at the Middle East now where there’s still fighting, more blood, more refugees. You can see on the daily news what’s happening and you think of your parents there, are they OK? Are they safe?”
“So let us keep that light, the light of the gospel that came from the Middle East from the beginning – keep that light going on.”
Some prayer points to help
Please pray that more churches would reach out to Syrian and Iraqi refugees with friendship, practical help and the comfort of the gospel.