On a back street in Newtown is a building wrapped in a dazzlingly vibrant design by Andrew Dennis. Its playful appearance and the unassuming name over the door, Becher House, disguise its true significance. It is a place of welcome and support for people seeking asylum in Australia.
Frances Rush OAM, chief executive officer of the Asylum Seekers Centre, leads the team that works tirelessly here to connect hundreds of people in Sydney with essential services, engage the community to harness goodwill, and influence policy and legal change.
In 2018 the Art Gallery of NSW launched a partnership with the Asylum Seekers Centre to develop the Welcome program, an initiative to offer perspectives on Australian history through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. The partnership blossomed and last year the Belonging project led to the creation of a collaborative artwork that was exhibited at the Gallery.
Tarik Ahlip is one of the Gallery’s artist educators who worked on the Belonging project. As part of Together In Art’s focus on migration and human movement, he caught up with Frances Rush to discuss challenges, possibilities, and the role of cultural institutions as sharers of unheard stories.
Tarik Ahlip: How would you describe the Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC) to someone?
Frances Rush: Generally, what you have in the Centre is the creative chaos of a community-focused environment. There’s a diversity of ages, with kids running around, people socialising and sitting down to have a hot meal. Then there’s the practical part of what happens behind the scenes, the generosity of doctors and nurses, and the various forms of assistance that allow people to become more independent. Because that’s what everyone wants, to welcome people and to connect them with the services they need.
We coordinate support in terms of understanding how Australia works, what to expect regarding our health system, language and finding employment. We have a big employment team, which has only a handful of paid staff, so we rely on the generous support of over 50 skilled job advisor volunteers. They help to develop résumés, find jobs and tutor people through the application process. All of that is so important because what’s next, the pathway to both education and employment, is so different from the country they have left.
Organisations like the ASC must burn through their resources quickly, a stress compounded by the uncertainty of not knowing how long this period affected by COVID-19 will go on for. How is the Centre funded?
Most of our budget is contributed by generous supporters, individuals and organisations, who believe that people seeking asylum should be welcomed and supported. We have approximately 28 paid staff and over 400 active volunteers.
We distribute hundreds of thousands in emergency relief every year, but we fundraise for that money. The State Government offers support in the form of paying for our nurses, but our doctors give their time for free.
Recently we’ve found people have been allocating their charitable donations towards causes associated with the bushfires and the floods, and now COVID-19. This has been followed by the downturn in the economy and the stock market, all of which will affect us too. We’re constantly balancing, constantly having to plan how to continue to operate and fundraise.
The partnership with the Gallery began with the Welcome program, an initiative for adult asylum seekers to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art by bringing them into the Gallery and sending Gallery staff to the ASC. What has been the response to the program?
The Welcome program came along at the right time, because we’d been talking with the people we support about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture and they had a lot of questions. The Gallery committed to working with us throughout the year, running workshops and providing opportunities to understand Australian history through art, especially the history of the First Nations people. It worked well because the Gallery team also made a real effort to understand the challenges that people seeking asylum face.
The program is a commitment from the Gallery to say that everyone is welcome. That’s a message that we really want to be echoed everywhere, but when it’s echoed by a major cultural institution, it makes a huge difference.
Then in 2019 there was the Belonging project and exhibition, which was probably my favourite program among those I’ve worked on as an artist educator at the Gallery.
When we were invited to be part of this exhibition in January 2019 we enthusiastically agreed, though none of us really knew what the end result would be. During the school holidays artist Claudia Nicholson and other artist educators from the Gallery would come to the Centre and run workshops for all the children. These were complemented by visits to the Gallery for all the families.
The reality is that while people wait for their assessment they are living in limbo. They are between stories, which is never an easy space. Belonging has been all about building connections and expressions of joy.
The artwork, By your side 2019, which was co-created by artist Claudia Nicholson and six young people who are seeking asylum in Australia, really took on a life of its own. It became a way of connecting and everyone looked out for each other – they became their own community.
To display the stories of young people seeking asylum is such a celebration. It says, ‘you are important and your experience, your story, is important and valued’.
There must be such incredibly varied stories and experiences that are shared at the Centre.
I couldn’t agree more. The Centre brings together such a diverse group of people. I would love a story-catcher in our place, because you could witness and record the most amazing outcomes that would otherwise get lost among the ten other things that happened on that day.
You might see a remarkable exchange, or the celebration when someone receives protection or gets a job. You see life-changing events taking place every day.
I’m wondering why these incredible stories and histories aren’t really seen? When you do encounter them, it’s often through a sympathetic biographer or someone observing that experience from the outside.
Personal histories are hidden stories for so many. It is such an incredibly protracted process to seek asylum – you have less access to legal support if you come by boat, as opposed to coming by plane, even though it’s legal to come and seek asylum through either mode.
And whilst you wait, you’re in a double bind. You don’t want to talk or put yourself in the public light as it might cause problems for your family or relatives back home, or because the reason why you fled might become exposed through social media. Even in terms of our exposure with the Gallery through the co-creation of an artwork, people’s faces and identities are protected for these reasons.
How important are your partnerships with cultural organisations?
I think they’re vital. The staff at the Centre mostly focus on the basic material hierarchies: food, shelter, getting kids into school, getting people settled. People seeking asylum often move frequently and we can help meet those basic needs as they arise. But we also offer a recreation program every day for mental health and partnerships are essential for us to be able deliver these.
When you seek asylum, the process can be so drawn out and difficult, opportunities to be included in cultural experiences are key to maintaining a sense of wellbeing. Staff from Sydney Theatre Company were coming to the Centre every Friday pre-COVID-19 and now they’re giving people a chance to practice their English online through drama. It’s very popular because people can have fun while learning, express themselves and connect in a different way. It really reveals the importance of play and imagination for adults and children.
We also partner with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Art and music can transcend language and cultures, so they are both really valuable relationships when it comes to our programming.
From my experience of working on the Belonging project, I can really relate to what you are saying about how resourcefulness and creativity go hand-in-hand in meeting challenges.
Yes, and we have seen a good example of this during the COVID-19 lockdown. Jonathan Wilson recently dropped off these marvellous art packs from the Gallery. They contained pencils, coloured paper and glue sticks as well as a really great activity where kids could make their own Jeffrey Smart-inspired artwork.
At the moment the Centre looks like a supermarket, with any space left to move filled almost entirely with food. We’re getting food out to 500 people a week, which is very labour-intensive because it involves packing it according to family size and then getting it delivered. Jonathan knew we were on the road every day and was able to reshape the offering from the Gallery, so we’ve also been distributing these wonderful art packs for kids.
We’ve encouraged the kids to send us some of them back, and many of them have really managed to re-imagine Jeffrey Smart. They are all so incredibly creative.
There is something very compelling in the idea that a true welcome recognises essential needs but also imaginative ones.
Yes, I think that’s what I love about the Centre. It’s an environment that values people’s human rights, encourages generosity, creativity and recognition of humanity.
Frances Rush OAM is chief executive officer of the Asylum Seekers Centre based in Newtown.