In August 2002, the Asylum Seeker Welcome Centre (ASWC) first opened its doors wide to welcome and support people seeking asylum in Australia. The Welcome Centre was born in the wake of the 2001/2002 Tampa affair, when fears existed in the community that large numbers of asylum seekers were arriving unchecked in Australia.
A group of agencies and workers knew something had to be done. There was a clear need to establish a community centre to offer support and safety to Melbourne’s growing asylum seeker population.
Now, 20 years on, despite a divisive social and political climate, the ASWC has stood firm as a place of refuge, welcome and humility.
While waiting for decisions on their applications to be recognised as refugees, many asylum seekers are isolated in the community with very little or no form of assistance and with few rights or entitlements.
Uniting’s Asylum Seeker Program Team Leader, Aimee says the centre supports people at all stages of their settlement journey.
“The centre provides a dual service in responding to people’s basic needs and empowering people to learn how to navigate the Australian context,” she said.
“It is important to understand where people are at in their settlement journey.
“If they’re new to the country then they might have quite early-stage settlement needs, like more day-to-day things.
“People who have been here longer, might have a lot of their early settlement needs already met but need social connection and mental health support. People’s mental health is quite compromised when they’ve been seeking asylum for a long time.”
ASWC Community Development Worker, Art, explains that just like the diversity of clients who visit the centre, its programs are equally as varied.
“It’s hard to pin down what we actually do because we do a lot of things. We run a lot of programs to enhance community participation. They are aimed at building people’s capacity with the hopes that one day they don’t need us anymore and they will become independent,” says Art.
From English programs to digital literacy or piano lessons to employment workshops, the ASWC offers a myriad of programs to better prepare asylum seekers for life in Australia.
And beyond practical support, the team also stressed the importance of emotional support. The migrant experience is known to be a complex one.
Art continues, “today I had a client after our English class, she shared with me that she felt very overwhelmed and has for a long time about things happening in her home country back in Iran.
“Just being a friend to people. Sometimes they don’t have anyone.”
On 6 December 2022, the ASWC held a 20th year anniversary celebration at the Brunswick Uniting Church Hall. Aimee said the event brought together clients, staff and volunteers, past and present, to share great stories, food, music and dancing from all around the world.
“We are often the first place people want to tell when something good happens in their lives. I always say this to the team, don’t ever take our role for granted,” shared Aimee.
“It might be sitting with someone while they cry for 10 minutes or smiling at someone and you’re the only person they have talked to that day. Being reminded of that role that we have in people’s lives and that the connection is meaningful for them.”
Leave no one behind
The Uniting Asylum Seeker Program is not government funded and relies on the compassionate generosity of supporters. Learn how you can support those seeking a better life in our country.