I first met Ramesh Fernandez after he was released from detention in 2004, not long after mass protests for refugee justice were held around the country, including from within detention centres such as Woomera and Baxter. He had fled Sri Lanka as an asylum seeker and had spent time on Christmas Island and Baxter. There is a photo of the two of us in the back yard of a friends place at this time: he has long hair, and I am wearing a disagreeable rainbow jumper. This is how I remember Ramesh from this time: quiet moments chatting, his soft voice and fast words.
In 2009 Ramesh, with the view of establishing an organisation to address the needs of refugees, launched Refugees, Survivors, and Ex-detainees (RISE) from the RMIT library. It is the only refugee governed advocacy and welfare organisation in Australia.
Earlier this semester I worked with others to establish a partnership between RISE and the student run, non-for-profit Monash restaurant, Wholefoods. On the request of RISE, we have established a foodbank, collecting dry food and cash vouchers, with food to be distributed from Wholefoods.
This relationship has been predicated on the absolute right to seek asylum and the need for systematic change to the inhumane policies of successive governments. This has been a relationship of solidarity and justice, not charity. We have used this partnership as a vehicle for discussing justice for refugees, including the marginalisation of refugee voices by refugee advocates and humanitarians.
Ramesh and I talked about the partnership with Wholefoods, and the days when he first came to volunteer around 2004:
“I first heard about Wholefoods through my friends and family. My [adopted] sister [Shen Narayanasamy] was part of the MSA, she used to be the President, she was the one that introduced me. My brother [Aaamer Rahman] also introduced me to my involvement at Wholefoods at that time so that’s how I got to know Wholefoods. I still remember the first year I was introduced to Wholefoods, getting introduced to all the people, who were happy and welcoming. This was through the political activities and attending protests organised by Wholefoods [people] and also some of the refugee protests. After that I was volunteering at Wholefoods, making coffee, doing food handling, and also doing other activities. Wholefoods was an important part of my life at this time, it actually gave me so much of my skill and also because of the nature of the Wholefoods, it gave me a different side of Australia that I had experienced in detention centres: friendly, warm, very welcoming and also it actually, increased confidence in my life.
“When you come out of detention centres, being detained for such long periods everything is grey and you don’t see the positive side in your life. Most of the people go through barriers in networking and making community connection, but Wholefoods was a big turn around in my life. There were a lot of students who were really friendly to me and putting up with my very narrow minded beliefs that I had at that time, about certain things, especially about white people. I went through a policy where I was targeted as a sub human and Wholefoods gave me a different perspective on life. So many people out there are very caring about refugees and asylum seekers.”
As part of the relationship with RISE, Wholefoods will be working with RISE members in a number of capacities.
“I think that as an ex-detainee, when I came out…what was given to me – and the friendly nature and the very accepting of people when we walk out of the detention centres – was a positive influence on our lives. It was very necessary to be part of that network. I think that people who are involved in Wholefoods, hopefully they will come into positive interaction with a diverse range of people. And also it is important for people to skill up in what they can give to the community, with the help of Wholefoods I think we can increase the skills of asylum seekers because it adds so many levels of opportunity, so I think that that is the most important reasons why we decided to be partners with Wholefoods.”
Refugees on bridging visas and in community detention are in an extremely vulnerable situation. There are no rights to work or education. There are no rights to Centrelink: people receive around $200 a week through the Red Cross asylum seeker scheme. There are no rights to public housing and there is overcrowding in share houses. There are high levels of homelessness. Many refugee organisations have eligibility criteria linked to funding that preclude some people from accessing services. Wholefoods began its RISE foodbank at the beginning of this semester.
“After the government introduced bridging visas without work and study rights in August 2012, about 700 people registered to access the foodbank for RISE. So…on average, we had about 200 people walking into RISE to access the foodbank [every day]. So what we then decided was that rather than have it at RISE only, we expanded to different locations – one is in Dandenong and the other one is in Werribee. So basically people who live in that area can go and access the foodbank. And also, as of last month we also started at Monash Uni. Our foodbank doesn’t have eligibility criteria for those who want to access it. As long as people walk into RISE tell us that they want to access the food program we will provide them, and also it doesn’t exclude any sort of refugees or asylum seekers based on [an organisational selection] criteria.”
RISE is incredibly popular both with its supporters and advocates as well as its members, but it is lacking in resources. There is a direct correlation between their lack of funding and being outspoken advocates.
“People are very fond of listening to the facts but also people want us to be thankful that we are here, to not talk about political influence of how we are oppressed in Australia. So the minute we open our mouth and talk about it, discuss it, and write our opinion, that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. Because we’ve constantly been getting phone calls, or emails, saying don’t talk so much about politics, just talk about the needs that you have. How can you address the issue of welfare, without addressing the broader issue of advocacy: we can’t agree because at the end of the day we want to get rid of this stereotypical belief in the public about how they think about us, yeah? So when we voice our opinion it is an issue for the public, because the public themselves are not ready to accept the oppression of the community: of what we face in our country [when before we were here], but not in Australia. So, the minute we try and talk about it everyone thinks we are ‘too political’.”
RISE is propelled by the needs of refugee and asylum seeker communities as defined by those communities. This includes creating a space where members feel safe as well as keeping a check on the self-proclaimed leaders and humanitarians of the refugee movement that silence refugee voices.
“The people themselves from detention influenced me a lot to open an organisation like RISE because when I was in detention centres (and when I was outside) there were no organisations who ethically believe who we are and where we come from. Also the voice of the community is really important and also to create a safer space for people to walk in to express their views on certain things is really important. There are so many refugee organisations that failed to do that. We started an organisation from the community for the community, this was really important . So there are a stereotype in the public, and around the globe, that asylum seekers … are not capable of voicing their opinions, there are always agencies and agents that want to be a partner, want be the voice for our needs – when this comes from the community itself it is more unique. That’s why I think that it is really important that an organisation like RISE is not only run by the people – refugees – but also governed by them and that the decision making is made by the refugees is really important because at the end of the day it is our needs and this is our community and I strongly believe we need to express how we feel about that. Using RISE as a medium actually brings a level of strength to the community. That’s why I think it is important to have an organisation like RISE.”
For further information:
RISE: riserefugee.org.au and on Facebook.
Wholefoods: rise-refugee. tumblr.com & ‘Monash Wholefoods’ on Facebook (look for the event ‘Refugee Foodbank Support’.)
Regular food donations for the Wholefoods/RISE foodbank can be dropped off in the Wholefoods space. Cash donations can be made near the cash registers.
Keep up to date with this relationship between RISE and Wholefoods and join up here