Having been part of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre since its inception, TAFE is now helping people seeking asylum find a place in our community.
There’s something of a campus feel to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). Stumbling distance from Footscray’s vibrant melting pot of a high street, the centre takes up two floors of an unremarkable shopfront. Downstairs is a chaotic collection of desks and signs that wouldn’t look out of place in a student union, whereas upstairs is warm and open, populated by colourful clusters of tables and chairs that recall
a university canteen. The space is deliberately designed to be welcoming, providing a first port of call for some of the most desperate people in our community.
The university connection is probably more than simple accident. After all, it was across the road at Victoria University where the ASRC was conceived in 2001. As the Tampa affair unfolded, TAFE teacher Kon Karapanagiotidis was looking for a new project for his social work students. Wanting to support some of the people seeking asylum, Kon and his students devised a project that was intended to last two weeks. Some 18 years later, it plays a vital role in the nation’s political and social life, assisting around 3,500 people every year.
Abiola Ajetomobi, director of innovation at the ASRC, says the centre’s role in shaping the destinies of people seeking asylum cannot be underestimated.
“We’re the only one-stop shop for people seeking asylum,” Abiola says. “We’ve seen a lot of people transition through the space and come back to help. People like myself. I used the service about 10 years ago; now I’m employed helping other people seeking asylum.”
“If you take hope away from people and take away a sense of being safe, it’s hard for them to receive anything you give to them.”
For many people seeking asylum, life after arriving in the community can be fraught and bewildering. Those on bridging or temporary protection visas often find themselves unable to work to support themselves and shut out from any means of improving their situation.
Abiola worries that the punitive measures put in place by successive federal governments are creating a cohort who are going through extreme levels of destitution and unable to feel a sense of ownership or agency in their society.
“If you take hope away from people and take away a sense of being safe, it’s hard for them to receive anything you give to them,” Abiola says. “What the ASRC does is give them a sense of hope
and safety. That means people are then in the right mental state to receive whatever support we can offer.”
One of the best forms of support for new arrivals is helping them pursue further study. For the past 10 years, the ASRC has been working with the Victorian government on the ASVET program, in which people seeking asylum are subsidised to gain access to TAFE courses. The program has helped more than 2,000 people make the first step towards settling in Australia.
“I came in here and said I need a job. I want to live here, I need to work. They said OK. That was hope.”
Mujahid is one of those to benefit from the initiative. Having worked as a teacher and secondary school principal for more than a decade in the Middle East, he found himself unable to find a job when — after a harrowing 13 months on Nauru — he was released into the community in 2014.
His visa initially prevented him from finding any employment, but after volunteering as a tutor, he sought teacher registration through VIT. A bureaucratic nightmare ensued, hingeing on his inability to contact the university where he originally trained in time to prove his qualifications. With nowhere else to go, he was directed towards the ASRC, who helped him enrol at TAFE.
“I came in here and said I need a job. I want to live here, I need to work. They said OK. That was hope. If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have been able to study anything. I wouldn’t be working.”
Although Mujahid’s situation is still desperate — he is yet to be granted permanent residency and has never met his seven- year-old daughter — his TAFE training has allowed him to find employment as an ES worker in a secondary school.
“I would say to everyone, put a TAFE course as an option when you apply to VTAC. Don’t be so focused on your ATAR score. I was desperate to study at university, but TAFE was actually a better idea.”
For Diana, the ASVET program meant she was able to continue her studies after finishing VCE. Having attended a Melbourne public school since Year 9, the hard-working student was shocked to discover that, unlike her schoolmates, she wouldn’t be able to go on to university — no matter how good her ATAR score was.
Under the current rules, people seeking asylum are treated as international students, meaning universities require them to pay vast upfront fees with no options to take out a loan.
“I basically gave up on studying,” Diana says. “It was too expensive. It was really annoying. All my friends were studying and I was the only one who wasn’t. I detached from everyone. I didn’t want to catch up as everyone was going to be talking about uni and I didn’t have anything to talk about.”
After a difficult six months working part time, Diana was directed to the ASRC, where she enrolled in TAFE and was helped to take advantage of a scholarship that would cover her tutorial fees. Now, she couldn’t be happier.
“I’m studying a Cert IV in fashion design and merchandising and I’m just loving it. I love all my teachers, they’re really helpful and have really great backgrounds in fashion. I love the location of the institution; I love the city.”
The aspiring fashion designer is still determined to go on to study at university, but wishes TAFE had been presented as a more desirable option when she was at high school.
“I would say to everyone, put a TAFE course as an option when you apply to VTAC. Don’t be so focused on your ATAR score. I was desperate to study at university, but TAFE was actually a better idea. If I’d gone to uni, with English as a second language, I’d have ended up really stressed out. The good thing about going into smaller institutions is they support you much more.”
Like many of those helped by the ASRC, Diana has returned to volunteer, helping people like herself to pursue study at TAFE through the ASVET program.
As with climate change, the government seems not to have kept pace with the mood of the electorate.
Abiola says the Victorian government scheme has been a great success, but there is room for more federal support when it comes to truly helping people seeking asylum access TAFE and take the next step.
“The challenge we’re having at the moment is supporting people into traineeship and apprenticeship courses, because of a number of policy issues. Even though we know it’s something that would give people seeking asylum a sustainable settlement.”
While recent federal governments have been reluctant to demonstrate support for refugees and people seeking asylum, Abiola thinks organisations such as the ASRC will be key to bringing about a change of policy.
One recent grassroots effort by the centre saw hundreds of folded paper #FreedomBirds sent to Scott Morrison (or posted on Twitter), demanding justice for detainees. As with issues such as climate change, the government seems not to have kept pace with the mood of the electorate.
“We want our federal leadership to take action,” Abiola says, “but I feel the community has already moved on.”