Every Friday for the last nine weeks, morning commuters have bustled through Circular Quay on their way to work, oblivious to a group of men dressed in gardening clothes and walking shoes who excitedly await their ferry.
They make up a group of SSI clients who have signed up to volunteer in a program established in partnership with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS), which aims to regenerate bushland and restore a WWII fort located at Middle Head, Mosman.
“Most of the volunteers are asylum seekers who don’t have working rights here in Australia and they are waiting on the outcome of their refugee visas,” said Catherine Sell, Special Projects Officer at SSI. ‘Meanwhile, they have signed up for this project as a way to contribute to Australian society, keep active and busy, and learn new skills at the same time.”
“The way this project is structured provides them with a sense of achievement: they have the goal of clearing the whole area, and the goal gets closer every week as they get rid of unwanted weeds,” Ms Sell adds.
Shukrullah, from Afghanistan, explained the benefits he had received from participating in this project: “I like coming here because if I stay at home the whole day I think too much and I feel too stressed,” he said. “Here you get to meet new friends and spend the whole day in a nice place.”
The project started last year as a pilot program. “The group of asylum seekers who attended worked so hard, that we decided to run another program,” said Margaret Bailey, a former manager and now a volunteer with NPWS.
The area around Middle Head had been used by the Defence Force since before WW1 and through to WW2, when the vegetation was cleared for military purposes.
“After that, it was abandoned and weeds took over,” Ms Bailey said. “NSW NPWS wanted to regenerate it by getting rid of all the weeds and maintaining the native plants, so it could be turned into a nice lookout.”
In this program, NPWS and their partners Landcare NSW and Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, pay for the cost of transport fares for volunteers and provide them with equipment, gloves, hats and lunch. “They have cleaned up a very big area that now is free of weeds and it will be replanted with native species next week,” explains Sydney Harbour National Park Ranger Mel Tyas. “We are very happy with the work the volunteers are doing and we are keen to repeat the project next year.”
Similarly, the participants expressed their pleasure in taking part in this program, which allows them to spend time outdoors and get their hands dirty, while enjoying the beautiful views over Sydney Harbour.
“I like coming here because I get to spend the day in nature instead of just being at home, waiting,” said Babak, from Iran. “This park reminds me of back home, of a place you could reach after driving for an hour from my hometown. There were similar trees and vegetation, it reminds me of my home and it makes me feel happy.”
Last Friday, the volunteers and staff planted a Port Jackson Fig tree to commemorate their work together. “This tree also represents the ties we have established with our new land, Australia,” said Abdul from Iraq. “Now I have something of mine here, I can come and water it and see it grow.”