Refugee food emergency widens

Sri Samy in the Friends of Refugee warehouse. 195119_06 Picture: GARY SISSONS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Each weekday, an industrial warehouse in the back blocks of Springvale cheerily echoes with playing children.

Once a leaky storage space for old tyres, the Friends of Refugees base has been softened with plants, play equipment and the bubbling mass of young families and up to 30 children.

“We spent three months cleaning it, just to get rid of the thick dust and that old rubber smell,” says Friends of Refugees chief executive Sri Samy.

It’s an oasis for the most disadvantaged and destitute in our community.

A whopping 700 kilograms of fresh and dry food is supplied to a stream of desperate asylum seekers and refugees, out of work and cut from any Federal income.

Food is an increasing need, Ms Samy says. Up to 80 households – and rising – arrive for food each week.

Some are commuting as far away as St Albans and other Western suburbs. “Because people are desperate,” Ms Samy says.

It doesn’t surprise her to hear of other charities such as Springvale Benevolent Society being swamped by demand.

The underlying reason is the Federal Government cutting hundreds of recipients from its Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) program.

It has meant that asylum seekers and refugees – assessed as job-ready – are cut from any payments, even before they have found work.

“The Government’s policy is hurting people. We could solve this with less money than it costs (the Government’s current border protection policy) but that’s not their aim.

“Their aim is to score political points.”

The charity helps them help themselves. Its mentors run basic English-language and OHS tuition for workplace readiness.

There are also sewing classes and help with resumes, BAS statements and other employment-ready skills.

Several of its ‘graduates’ have created lawn-mowing, fencing, cleaning, sewing and driver tuition businesses.

Others have found work as farm hands, fruit pickers and factory and warehouse hands.

Without any government help, the charity supplies furniture, TVs and whitegoods to help families deck out their homes. All donated by private citizens.

In 2013, the charity began from nothing but warm community spirit. Volunteers started hearing of asylum seekers sleeping on the floors of empty houses, and donations of beds, whitegoods, food and furniture poured in.

One of those volunteers Ms Samy started to organize the help, as well as job and training opportunities like a bicycle repair workshop.

While the late Trevor Grant, a journalist, captured the public’s attention for the cause with a story on a pregnant asylum seeker sleeping on a bare floor.

“We thought it would be just a few families and then we’d carry on with our lives.”

After six years, Ms Samy had hoped to wind down her charity and spend more time with her family after the Federal Election.

Like many, she had expected the Labor party, which had pledged to restore the SRSS payments, to win.

Now the former architect is steeling herself for at least three more years.

On hold are her plans to start up an enterprise to help single and separated women in their 50s – a group at a higher risk of homelessness, poverty and unemployment.

“We need to survive to help other people.”

Meanwhile Friends of Refugees still lives off goodwill from regular donors from diverse community groups. Many in the Indian community donate food, for example.

A volunteer delivery driver who looks out for abandoned goods recently supplied eight single mattresses – as good as new.

Waverley Gardens shopping centre donated the ever-popular indoor play assemby.

Greater Dandenong Council last month handed a $61,200 grant of some of its surplus funds to the overwhelmed charity.

And the warehouse’s landlord, inspired by the charity’s efforts, replaced the leaky roof.

It is now in need of food donations as well as cash to help employ volunteer and employment program co-ordinators.

To help, call 9574 6291 or visit


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