Jeff Wild, Community Engagement Coordinator at CatholicCare
Dancing, music, laughter, hard work and generosity were the features of the Christmas celebration at St Vincent’s Care Services, Eltham on Friday 22 December. Refugees from Syria and Iraq gathered with CatholicCare staff, local volunteers, supporters from St Gregory the Great Parish, Doncaster, and St Christopher’s, Syndal, and the Armenian community. It was a celebration, not just of Christmas but of new possibilities for recently arrived refugees and for local communities.
The scene was set and decorated by Nastaran Sedigh, Tenancy Support Worker for the refugees at Eltham, who had been working hard since morning. Contributions were made by a wide range of groups: St Monica’s College, Epping provided wheelbarrows, tables and benches from their woodwork class; Margaret Yap and Katrina Koh from St Christopher’s delivered six bags of gifts; Parishioners, Peter Whiting, Margaret O’Donnell and Anne McGrath, brought 30 bags of gifts from St Gregory’s, while their Women’s Friendship group brought three large bags of woollen rugs which had been crafted during the year.
Peter Whiting, who chaired the St Gregory’s sub-committee which coordinated their giving to the refugees, was particularly delighted that the party provided an opportunity for parishioners and refugees to mix together and create community. This was exemplified by the barbecue where a parishioner and a refugee worked together. St Gregory’s provided the meat and drinks, while the refugees made the wonderful range of salads and pastries.
Prior to the feast, the occasion was blessed by Monsignor Tony Ireland, parish priest of St Gregory’s, and an Arabic-speaking priest, Nemer Abou Chaya.
‘At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus in the Middle East,’ said Mons. Ireland. ‘It is a joy to celebrate the birth of the new life for these wonderful people.’
I had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Jinadasa, an Eltham resident who has been volunteering with the project for nine months. Janet has helped in many practical ways and was described by one of the refugees as the ‘Australian Google’ for her readiness to respond to questions about Australian culture, language and processes.
One of the refugees summed up the prevailing spirit by saying, ‘We are very happy here, especially with the volunteers. We arrived not knowing anything about where we would live and found Eltham to be a very nice and peaceful area, where the people are very friendly and help us to learn English.’
The new arrivals have suffered in a variety of ways. Some families are still separated because of Government regulations, others have had to move several times to find protection, while others are still struggling to find work. The new friendships being forged here are giving new life to the refugee families and to their Australian supporters. The party’s success was due to the generosity of a wide range of people. This was, for me, one of the most significant events of the Christmas season because of its genuine expression of the Christmas spirit. If you would like to learn more about the Eltham Project and how you can help, visit the page here.