During the COVID-19 pandemic, refugees and asylum seekers have been declared ineligible for any financial assistance from the government, depriving them of a lifeline in desperate times, writes Carmel Lillis.
March 2020: The world trembles beneath the might of a virus with echoes of Biblical proportion plagues. Plagues which terrorised ancient peoples, snuffed out the lives of millions in the Middle Ages, and killed somewhere between 60 million and 100 million precious people just 100 years before.
No one is old enough to remember the 1919 pneumonic flu, so it has been relegated to ancient history, too. The collective shock that this could happen in the 21st Century and render us almost powerless before its devastation triggers tidal waves of denial, bewilderment, suffering and grief.
June 2020: Melbourne battens down to save lives. The government’s JobKeeper Payment scheme helps the closed-down and the stood-down survive the economic tsunami.
But one group gets nothing. Refugees and asylum seekers are declared ineligible for any financial assistance.
In a western suburb, calls to the St Vincent de Paul Society escalate. A Vinnies team of two volunteers (let’s call them Caitlin and Alex) attend the first call – a refugee, ‘Naeem’ whose work as an Uber driver has ground to a halt. They take him food, supermarket cards and bedsheets. The society pays his overdue rent. When Caitlin calls to check on him, he sobs in despair. His mother has died of the virus. But how can he send his family, trapped in a war zone, the money needed for a doctor? He cannot feed himself. And he knows so many in the same situation here in Melbourne. Please, can they help?
Can they help? Caitlin and Alex are in a vulnerable age group. Their anxious families plead with them to take leave from their volunteer work until the pandemic passes. The women talk it over. “Is there really any need to tell our families?” they ponder. “Let’s save them from worrying” is the mutual conclusion of the two middle-aged subversives.
Naeem asks them to call on Ruba. Forbidden temporarily from entering homes due to the virus, they speak to her through masks at the front door of her derelict house. Peeping out from behind her hijab, Ruba’s eyes radiate terror.
Back in the cocoon of their car, Caitlin and Alex experience a dark night of the soul.
“She needs everything. How can we even find the resources, let alone the time to track them down? I have a full-time paid job. I still have a family at home,” laments Caitlin.
“My husband is ill,” says Alex.
“Did the Good Samaritan have these problems?” they ask themselves.
Then they dissolve into laughter. As a card-carrying member of the human race, of course the Good Samaritan had his problems. Who knows that he didn’t risk losing an important trading deal to take the man left for dead on the lonely road, known as the Way of Blood, to the inn? Or that he was not sick with worry over a wayward teenager?
The frightened woman behind the hijab had surely travelled the ‘Way of Blood’. Not only was she a refugee fleeing a war-torn country, but she had come to Australia with a husband who ‘tortured’, then abandoned her. She gained a temporary protection visa, but she was friendless, without English and without money.
Meanwhile, the father-in-law was dispatched to seize her little boys, and when she fought to stop him, he broke her hands. She had been left for dead as surely as the traveller in the New Testament parable, and only some quick action by the Federal Police had intercepted the father-in-law at the airport. No wonder Ruba’s eyes were glazed with terror. What those eyes had seen!
And now she had lost her job in food preparation and cooking due to the restaurant closure when the pandemic hit. No social security payments for Ruba. She and her kind were excluded from this lifeline.
Two very flawed Good Samaritans got down to work. They pooled resources to buy the boys new shoes and clothes – the op shop option being closed to them during the pandemic.
Alex’s husband’s condition deteriorated, and she could not leave him. So Caitlin forged on alone. She travelled with food and supermarket cards each week. Friends, told of Ruba’s plight, gave what they could.
But Ruba’s problems were so huge.
Sure, she needed a friend who would listen and advise and reassure. But she also needed those modern iterations of the Good Samaritan: several helping organisations.
A layer of dust smothered Caitlin’s furniture. She corrected her students’ essays long into the night. Daytime hours not swallowed by teaching were spent on the phone to access pandemic relief from the Red Cross and help Ruba fill out application forms remotely – quite a challenge with the language barrier.
More hours were used to secure help from Zakat, the Muslim Foundation. Vincent Care paid rent once; Zakat picked up the tab another time, and the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, with so many other calls on their resources, helped too. Mostly, the St Vincent de Paul Society came through with the rental payments to save Ruba and her children.
Ruba searched tirelessly for work. Another organisation whose core values reflect the Good Samaritan’s, The Brotherhood of St Laurence, helped her find employment at a sandwich factory. She gained a small income working a 10-hour shift but lost it as the next lockdown hit. And so on … and on …
During a brief intermission when lockdown lifted and the sunshine had never seemed so brilliant and precious, Caitlin and Ruba chatted over cups of tea. They grew fond of drawing wonderful parallels between the Muslim faith and Christian beliefs.
Ramadan, like Lent, was a time to reflect, to think of others and to sacrifice to give to the less well-off. “I think you might be excused this year, Ruba,” Caitlin joked. Ruba shook her head sorrowfully and said she had offered up extra prayers. “Perhaps, when times are good again, I can give extra.”
Caitlin rejoiced that the frightened woman who had been left for dead could now at least dream of “when times are good again”.
Caitlin occasionally struggled with Ruba’s financial decisions. Ruba reported she was no longer receiving food parcels from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre – that she and her boys couldn’t eat some of the canned foods. “But…but … some foods you could eat, surely? Please, with your permission, can I phone to ask them to reinstate the food parcels?” The fifth lockdown had begun. The situation was critical. How naïve was Ruba?
When Caitlin called, she realised she had misunderstood. The centre explained they had stopped delivering food parcels – they simply did not have the people resources. Ruba had merely been noting that some items were not halal. And yes, she could come in to collect a limited amount.
As the Delta variant rages, Ruba is far from secure. Every month presents a challenge to find money for the rent, for food and to pay the bills. But 15 months after she was referred, a small army of Good Samaritans get her and her boys over the line. Every month.
Recently, she has volunteered to cook for anyone who cannot do it for themselves, wanting so much to contribute to the community that put its arms around her when she was lost, afraid and destitute.
‘A parable for the 21st Century’ was highly commended in The Good Oil 2021 Writers’ Award.