By Lara Punter
What started as a small charity group in a local house in Buderim is now extending the hand of friendship to refugees throughout the Sunshine Coast, making friends and changing lives forever.
Buddies Refugee Support Group, named to signify Buderim beginnings and the friendships made with refugees, is a local charity group focused on spreading the motto for “just and compassionate treatment of refugees.”
The group initially formed in 2001 during the Howard government, a time when Buddies member Bronwyn Bell said the government had become particularly tough on refugees.
“There was that feeling out there that refugees were bad people and the government needed to be tough,” Ms Bell said.
“Our driving motivation was to let refugees know that there were Australians that would welcome them.”
From this time Buddies endeavoured to help both refugees and asylum seekers become friends with Australian people and change negative perceptions by integrating them into the wider community through picnics, host programs and public fundraisers.
However Ms Bell says there is much more awareness that needs to be raised concerning refugees and Buddies does so by educating the community and lobbying the Federal government on important issues.
“The government’s policy at the moment is all about discouraging refugees coming to Australia and unfortunately that does seem to be a reflection of a lot of people’s attitude in general,” Ms Bell said.
“The average Australian has never met a refugee so it’s very easy to view them in a bad light.”
Through Buddies co-operation with the Australian Homestay Network’s new program, Homestay Helping Hands, it is hoped the negative perceptions will change.
The program provides accommodation for both refugees and asylum seekers in Australian homes and Supervisor Australian Homestay Network Anne Jacobson said the program had already been successful.
“The Sunshine Coast has been the first regional area to host asylum seekers and refugees in the program and has proven highly successful due to the support of many local community organisations providing supportive services, Buddies being one such organisation,” Ms Jacobson said.
The program is helping Australians connect with refugees and asylum seekers and refugee Devika Silva said Australian families had showed kindness and hospitality.
“Australian people are very kind and helpful,” Ms Silva said.
“They are very welcoming, very honest and they have helped us a lot.”
Through these programs the community has been able to engage with refugees and asylum seekers and Ms Jacobson said Buddies provided significant support.
“Buddies has provided supportive links for local asylum seekers and refugees,” Ms Jacobson said.
“This is a great networking opportunity and allows for community connections.”
Homestay Helping Hands will be important in integrating asylum seekers and refugees into the wider Australian community and Ms Bell believes the program will help to change negative attitudes.
“The most powerful catalyst for change is when people meet refugees and asylum seekers in person and have them in their home and get to hear their stories and realise they are just like us.”