Volume 16 Number 4
Reaching Out to Asylum Seekers
01 August 2003

Over the last six years, the Asylum Seekers Centre in Melbourne, Australia, has distributed over A$250,000-worth of aid.

Over the last six years, the Asylum Seekers Centre in Melbourne, Australia, has distributed over A$250,000-worth of aid. Its founder, David Spitteler, has spoken to over 205 churches of all denominations, and to schools, radio stations and rotary clubs, raising awareness of the challenges facing people who come to Australia in search of sanctuary.

As National Service Performance Manager at Australia’s telecommunications giant, Telstra, Spitteler had helped to change the company’s assessment criteria to ones based on customer satisfaction. Two years after leaving the company, he took a part-time position as cross-cultural networker for the Anglican churches in his area.

In his spare time, he responded to a suggestion that he should help asylum seekers. ‘Nobody else was doing that,’ he says. He knew solicitors working with the Refugee Advice and Case Work Services, who introduced him to Ema, a post-graduate agricultural student from Ethiopia. Her husband had been a lecturer in Addis Ababa when the regime changed in Ethiopia, endangering their lives. ‘We talked about her needs, and then about the needs of other asylum seekers, and I started to think, “What can I do to help on one day a week?” ’

Spitteler began to talk to churches about the needs, and offered to collect and distribute food. As the word got around, more asylum seekers came asking for assistance, and the project spiralled. Ema’s family had also sought help in finding work, so Spitteler offered training. When Ema’s husband finally did land a job two nights per week stacking supermarket shelves, they immediately stopped taking the food, saying that others needed it more. They were eventually granted asylum and Ema has since completed a doctorate at Melbourne University.

Three years ago, realizing that many of his clients were having to travel long distances to support centres, Spitteler moved his operations to the Trinity Uniting Church in Dandenong, a suburb of Melbourne where many asylum seekers live.

He describes himself as a facilitator (now a full-time unsalaried job) matching needs with offers of help. Such offers have included free haircuts, conversational English classes, and seven garden plots where asylum seekers can grow vegetables.

Since Spitteler started, Australian laws have got tougher. All asylum seekers who arrive without papers are initially detained: if released, they are allowed to work. Those who arrive with proper papers, but delay in asking for asylum, are not allowed to work and do not receive support; neither do people appealing against negative asylum decisions. These groups are completely reliant on charities, and it is on them that Spitteler concentrates.

Asked how the experience has changed him, Spitteler responds that he has felt empowered by applying his faith outside the structures of the church. ‘I made a conscious decision to step outside the committee work of the church. I didn’t get any initial support from the religious institutions, but it has worked.’
Mike Lowe

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