At Bedford Street in Newtown, the air is frigid, the sky clear and still. Beside the train track is a towering fig tree, where shrieks from myna birds are drowned out by the roar of trains. On the corner opposite, close to the road, is the Asylum Seekers Centre, a rambling terrace house illuminated by a multicoloured mural.
When she meets me inside, Frances Rush smiles. Her hand is warm. She wears brilliant lipstick and a bright scarf, but everything else about her is gentle: eyes, manner, the delicate mother-of-pearl studs at her ears. She’s worked with homeless people, priests and nuns, sex workers, camels, kids in youth detention; on national boards, on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; in Aboriginal communities, cities, the bush, the desert. The exposure of her family to social justice has been a strong driver for her own career, she says. “As one of five children growing up in the ’70s, my family pooled with others and supported Vietnamese families. It was community coming together.”
Here, at the Asylum Seekers Centre, Rush has been involved since the very beginning, when the centre was in Surry Hills. Four years ago, with financial support from major foundations, individuals and community groups, the centre expanded, moving to Newtown. Last year, Rush became chief executive officer.
At any one time, there are 17,000 people living in New South Wales who are seeking asylum. The centre, she tells me, is almost at capacity. “We are downstream of government policy and we feel the impact. There are people who will tip into destitution. It is both political and real.”
The centre operates with more than 300 volunteers: lawyers, doctors, cooks, teachers, employment service workers, and more. In terms of compassion and generosity, Rush says, it is the opposite of what is happening at government level. “Even when we first moved in, local people turned up with canned goods on day one. We get five to 10 calls a day saying, ‘What can I do?’ One of our challenges is: how do we harness that goodwill?”
Rush takes me on a tour. Inside, the house is a tight warren of rooms and hallways. Every space is filled. Against a wall in the common area, a table is laid out with free things to take: cans of baked beans, cooking implements, new coathangers covered in maroon satin or yellow crochet. In the corner is a playpen with toys and books, and a multistorey doll’s house complete with furnishings. Rush stops at the children’s artwork that decorates the walls: carefully coloured pictures of monkeys and dinosaurs, butterflies in pinks and blues, a house with a pointed roof and green garden. “We have an extraordinary number of children here at the moment,” she says. “One little girl is nervous her school friends will find out she’s an asylum seeker, and won’t be her friends anymore.” English classes are not provided by the government for asylum seekers, and school preparation, “takes an enormous amount of work”.
Walking around the centre, Rush greets people by name, fetches paper for someone, confirms meeting times with someone else. We stop at the basic kitchen, where Miles, a volunteer cook for the past 12 years, is frying pakoras. Volunteer kitchen staff provide a hot meal every day. “Not everyone has access to hot food,” Rush says. “For a lot of people, they are not living in a place they can cook.”
Guitars hang on the wall of the music room; below them, bongo drums and electric keyboards sit among sheets of music. “People wait years – what do they do in that time? We run education classes: gardening and music and art. We look at social activities, what’s free in the city.”
Along the hallway, the employment team sits in a narrow office, overlooking the front street. Free to employers, the centre’s employment service matches people with jobs, confirms work rights and skill levels, and offers ongoing support. Last year the service helped 222 asylum seekers find jobs. “Employment transforms lives,” Rush says. “If you want a really good employee, you’d employ someone who sought safety here. They want that job, they want to make it work. There is no sense of wanting to come here and linger.”
We visit the health clinic, one small room, where equipment has been donated by local hospitals. One of Rush’s biggest challenges, she admits, is funding. Four years ago the centre supported 400 people; now, that number is above 1600. Relying on grants makes you vulnerable, she says. “Ordinary people making small, regular donations is vital. That untied money keeps the place going. It enables us to be flexible. And it gives us the certainty of going forward.”
The Australian public who are supportive of people seeking asylum, Rush tells me, understand it, that real sense of courage. “It’s the courage that comes hand in hand with grief really. People who flee their country are losing. They’re leaving family and culture. And they don’t know where they are going. That resilience and courage is a powerful combination. It’s a strength you want to build on.”
Downstairs, behind the food bank, the storage room is heaving. Non-perishable food and blankets line the walls and floor. Rush laughs. She says she has been stalking the generous priest on the corner of the street. “I am always on the lookout for more room.”
Of her role, Rush is cautiously optimistic. “It’s a huge responsibility on every level; I certainly feel that.” Her outlet, she says, is walking: bush treks in Tasmania, the Camino in Spain and France, the Oxfam trail walk. “It’s about getting into that rhythm, that different way of thinking.”
She smiles. “But this doesn’t really need to be about me, does it?” Again, Rush is talking about the centre and its people. Our work here, she says, is about empowering people, helping them to thrive, getting them back on their feet. “When a person from the employment team says someone has got a job – we all rejoice in that. And when you hear someone has got protection, you think: they can live, they can breathe again.”