Aware that the fear borne by asylum seekers is complex and deep, Sue has striven to simply be a presence for the people she reaches out to – an invaluable contribution that volunteers like her make to JRS and the people it works with.
JRS volunteer Sue Fogarty gathers around a table with a group of refugee women and children, instructing and encouraging them in their beading projects. Amanthi* has an inbuilt talent for this craft, and has hastened her learning by watching Youtube tutorials. Hnin loves anything with gold in it, and Ana has beaded in the past but is learning new, more complex techniques under Sue’s gentle guidance.
The idea of a beading group occurred to Sue while volunteering with male asylum seekers in JRS’ community detention project: some of them had wives, and these women had little with which to keep themselves busy as they awaited the outcome of their visa applications.
A craft group was the obvious solution. Sue had lived for a time in Dubai, where the hot weather necessitated an indoor lifestyle.
“You need a hobby because it’s too hot to go out, and you can get beads fairly easily there. I knew the enjoyment that I got out of it and I’d actually been keen to start a women’s group, and they seem to enjoy it,” Sue says.
The beading group is the latest in a string of projects in which Sue has been involved. The very first volunteer at JRS’ Epping centre (now relocated to West Ryde), Sue brought with her an awareness of the misfortune that often befalls others and the pain of dislocation.
“I’d been an expat many times in lots of countries and so I was aware of the difficulty of what it was like to start out in a foreign country – and I was starting out under very different circumstances to what these people are,” Sue explains. “I know what it’s like to be homesick. You can pick a newcomer, a scared newcomer.”
Aware that the fear borne by asylum seekers is complex and deep, Sue has striven to simply be a presence for the people she reaches out to – an invaluable contribution that volunteers like her make to JRS and the people it works with. Originally assuming she would be cooking a meal each night for vulnerable adult men in JRS’ community detention program, Sue discovered that many of them were already good cooks.
“I just continued to go along and chat,” she says. “Sometimes they’d be very friendly and you were just there to chat if they wanted, and others were very disheartened by everything that was happening – or not happening – in their lives. Some of them called me mum.”
Not all of the men could cook, and Sue had one of her most challenging – and hilarious – encounters while teaching one of them how to make a curry.
“I showed him how to peel an onion, which he’d never done; we peeled the garlic and everything. I told him to get the oil. He went to get his jar of oil, and I didn’t look [at it] and I squeezed it into the pot. We put the garlic and the onions in and I looked at it and thought, ‘Why don’t these onions brown?’ And I looked at the bottle and it was dishwashing liquid!” Sue recalls.
The incident reinforced for Sue the importance of patience and ingenuity in her volunteer role – and showed her that the lessons are often reciprocal.
“I thought, ‘How can I do this? He’s got to be able to cook later, and I can’t give him a recipe.’ So we drew onions and cloves of garlic and I was teaching him the English word and he was teaching me the Dari word and we made a basic pumpkin curry [using pictures].”
*Names have been changed.
By Catherine Marshall