A special event at Settlement Services International’s Bankstown offices in November helped support the efforts of the citizens coalition Sydney Alliance to 'Change the Conversation' about asylum seekers.
SSI CEO Violet Roumeliotis.
A full house enjoyed an uplifting evening of personal stories from people seeking asylum, former refugees and others, while raising funds to continue a campaign that shift’s the asylum seeker conversation in local communities.
‘Change the Conversation’ seeks to address the polarisation around the asylum seeker issue by giving members of civil society organisations an opportunity to engage with the real stories of asylum seekers and to build relationships with them by meeting them face to face.
The campaign has been made possible by the financial contributions of organisations including SSI and the St Vincent de Paul Society.
It has been staffed by part-time Community Organiser Chantelle Ogilvie-Ellis, whose role has included working with leaders to identify the relevance of asylum seekers to their mission, preparing resources and guides for asylum seeker conversation sessions, and developing a pool of people to share their stories and experiences.
The goal was to engage 2,000 people across Sydney in table talks with and about asylum seekers, to build solidarity and find common ground. Conversations typically take an hour and a half and emphasise respectful dialogue and mutual sharing of personal stories.
So far, about 900 people have taken part in conversations and over 3,000 people have attended meetings where stories were told.
“We believe that these conversations can affect private perceptions and public conversation about asylum seekers and help organisations enact their own values when it comes to people seeking refuge,” Ms Ogilvie-Ellis said.
The Bankstown event, which was to raise gap funds so the campaign could run until the end of June next year, when 2016 funding will begin, exceeded expectations. The $7,700 raised far surpassed the target of $6,500.
The total was achieved through ticket sales, a raffle of prizes generously donated and an American auction of paintings by asylum seekers and refugees that fetched $1,800.
Entertainment was provided by an Afghan Hazara musician and Philip Feinstein from Music for Refugees, and Siobhan Marren presented information regarding current policies affecting people seeking asylum.
SSI Case Manager Paz Roman said, “overall it was a grand night and so very successful in meeting our target.”
Ms Ogilvie-Ellis was grateful for SSI’s hospitality and support at Bankstown and throughout the campaign. “It’s such a pleasure to work with SSI,” she said. “You have truly inspiring staff who are clearly attracted to the culture you strive to create.”
A team of volunteers will now continue to run the table talks and the money raised at the SSI event will enable Sydney Alliance to employ a part-time campaign assistant.
SSI CEO Violet Roumeliotis said the Bankstown event was a wonderful expression of goodwill within the community.
She said Sydney Alliance was an appropriate body to be coordinating the campaign because it represented diverse organisations, from trade unions to faith groups and non-government organisations.
“It is doing quiet but solid work that can have an impact on the work and constituency of SSI,” Ms Roumeliotis said.
“Because of Change the Conversation, people who had been ambivalent about the issue have become champions of asylum seekers and the asylum seekers involved have grown in their capacity for leadership.”