Extract from an article by Sister Noelene White, Good Shepherd Sisters (GSS) and Frances Rush, Deputy Chair ASC, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Asylum Seekers Centre in 2013.
When the Asylum Seekers Centre opened its doors in 1993, nobody could have envisaged the journey ahead.
Sister Noelene said the house at 38 Nobbs Street, Surry Hills, was initially purchased in the early 1980’s to provide for a community of Sisters to live and work in the area.
“In 1992 the Sisters decided they no longer needed the house for their own purposes but were loathe to let it go. Instead of selling up, they decided to make it available to a community group who were not receiving funding or support. Just one week later, we were approached by members of a refugee inter-agency group who were interested in setting up an organisation to help asylum seekers. They needed a house and a wage. And that was the first step which took us all on the journey to where we are today.”
In 1993, GSS made the house available as well as $30,000 for the establishment of the Asylum Seekers Centre, and it was officially opened later that year. It was the first centre established in Australia to specifically address the needs of people seeking asylum. Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice and Research Centre, became the auspice body for management and support purposes and the project was supported by a number of agencies including the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, St Vincent de Paul, Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors, Jesuit Refugee Service and Red Cross.
Sister Noelene said the Centre started with no resources. “The initial plan was to develop a health care service, and one medical practitioner and one registered nurse volunteered their services. English classes were another priority.
It was also quickly realized that the Centre would not survive without volunteers and to this day they are its greatest resource.”
“It simply could not function without them. Later on the Mercy Foundation committed equal funding with GSS which enabled the Centre to expand its services and employ more staff. A number of other religious orders also supported us during the first hard years when there was no one else we could turn to for financial assistance. There simply was no support in the wider community at that time.”
Sister Noelene said she has seen the Centre develop into a place of utmost importance in the community. “From the beginning we wanted it to be a place of welcome and safety – a place where people would receive hospitality and be treated with respect. It has been that in abundance – thanks to all those wonderful women and men who have supported it over the last 20 years.
“Today it continues to be an oasis for many people, a welcoming and safe place for those who have fled situations of great danger. And how enriched have we, who are involved with the Centre, become! We will never be the same again because of what we have heard and seen and shared with the brave and wonderful people who come to the Centre.”
A Good Shepherd Sisters saying to remind us of the value of every human being and the respect and dignity which is their right, no matter their state in life.
GSANZ have committed a generous percentage of the sale of 38 Nobbs Street to ASC. Sister Noelene said that all the connections between the ASC and Good Shepherd agencies such as the Trading Circle will continue on into the future.
Frances Rush, who has also been involved with ASC since its formation, said the Centre has always attracted people who want to embody the ‘You are Welcome’ spirit to asylum seekers. “Matching this with “What can I do or offer’ is what makes the practical difference. The Centre has always been a hands on kind of place. From the early English classes, health and legal clinics to the getting to know Sydney trips.”
Sister Noelene and Frances have said often: If only the walls of 38 Nobbs Street could release all the stories, the emotions, the grief and friendships that have been forged under its roof. In a serendipitous way the building outgrew us and pushed us, focussing the need to find new space.
“At its heart the Centre has always been about generous collaboration, from the GSS with the Jesuit Refugee Service beginning in 1993, to the volunteers and staff, to the myriad of collaborations today that have enabled Becher House to open its doors on 9th April,” said Frances.
“It is clear that everybody at the Centre will creatively work with this new physical security to advocate tenaciously for those seeking asylum and living with the reality of constant insecurity. Let’s hope we are not needed in 2033.”
Sister Noelene and Frances both agree that as the Centre moves into a new era, we should take time to celebrate what has already been achieve and all that will in the future.
Sister Noelene White, GSS
Frances Rush, Deputy Chair, ASC