When 71-year-old Virginia Walker was in hospital three years ago she had a steady stream of young male visitors. "People there used to wonder," says Walker in a very proper English accent. "Black men, dark men, all coming to see this older woman in hospital."
Although Walker has no children of her own, every year she receives cards, emails and phone calls from refugees wishing her happy Mother’s Day. "I became aunt or mother to the refugees and in many ways they are my children." When asked why refugees call her "mother", she replies, "Because I’m giving and I care about them."
Walker is one of many Australians who became involved in the grassroots refugee movement during the Howard years — a movement made up of several disparate urban and rural groups around Australia.
"The movement was carried by women," says Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne. "Women did the day-to-day heartbreaking support work."
Many of the women involved offered more than just support — they became mothers to the refugees they cared for.
Framed photos of the refugees Walker has helped sit on the bookshelf of her ground-floor Sydney apartment which was bought after two knee reconstructions. A bag of donated baby clothes is propped up by the door next to an assortment of fancy and functional walking sticks. Today she is using a brightly-coloured floral stick to help her get around.
Walker’s life experiences give her a natural affinity with refugees. She travelled through the Middle East when she was 17, worked in corrective services for almost 18 years, has undertaken volunteer work in many capacities, and studied the sociology of migration at university.
In 2002, a friend suggested Walker visit asylum seekers in detention. "I told her I never wanted to go inside a jail ever again."
Once inside, however, there was no looking back. "I never stop. There’s a lot of cooking. When I go to Villawood, I take biscuits, cakes, fruit, nuts, Turkish bread and dips — things I know they like." She also helps with visa applications, gives emotional support and organises accommodation and financial assistance through the Bridge for Asylum Seekers Foundation she set up in 2003.
Walker says her background as a prison welfare officer helps her to know when to cut off from the problems around her so she can continue her work and remain sane.
Unlike Walker, Elaine Smith is an advocate with no history of political involvement. She is a 58-year-old community pharmacist with a gentle manner from the country town of Laurieton, NSW.
Smith became concerned about refugees when media reports about detention camps reminded her of school-day lessons on the European camps of World War II. "We identified with Europe. We asked, ‘Why didn’t the general populace rise up and say we don’t do these sorts of things?’ I couldn’t get to the bottom of that."
"I was just a person going to work and coming home every day. I couldn’t even work out the difference between Iraq and Iran. I thought it was my social responsibility to do something, but I didn’t know what, so I got on the computer and googled ‘refugee’."
Eventually, through a network of nuns and advocate groups, Smith got five names of people to write to and ended up corresponding with hundreds. "It was hard to keep track of them all," she admits. Smith started to develop closer relationships with some of the boys through the discovery of shared interests, like art and education. Some of the boys called her "mother".
"Calling me mother is their way of handling the relationship," says Smith. "They come from family-orientated societies. I felt it was initiated by them, but to put myself in context, I would write, ‘I’m an older woman like your mum or grandmother.’ What I was trying to say was I’m not a young woman that you have to be awkward with."
Smith has stayed in contact with some of the refugees she wrote to and sends money every fortnight to an Afghan friend who was pressured to return but many refugees have moved on. Smith says she doesn’t feel bereft or disappointed when the friendship lapses. "If they move on it’s a sign of strength. It would be foolish and damaging for me to think there would be something in return."
That’s not to say that Smith doesn’t get anything out of her work. She has welcomed the sense of purpose and the feeling of being connected to something larger than herself.
The experience of 29-year-old Abdul Hekmat from Afghanistan confirms the enormous impact advocates like Smith have had on the lives of refugees. Seven years ago, Hekmat found a mother figure and friend in writer Rosie Scott. "I often said to my family, especially my mother, that I have another mother here," says Hekmat.
Hekmat met Scott when he wrote a story about his boat journey to Australia for an anthology of writing by detainees that Scott was editing through literary organisation, Sydney PEN.
Their relationship moved from one based on writing and refugee advocacy to strong friendship. "As we got to know each other I felt very protective towards him. He was 22 and alone in a place where he couldn’t speak English very well," says Scott. "We found we had mutual interests. Some of the most interesting literary conversations I’ve ever had have been with Abdul."
Scott is youthful at 61, with an open smile. "I’ve helped Abdul with all sorts of things," she says, "from his thesis on the Hazara diaspora to anything to do with the immigration department. We started to talk about personal things, like his ideas about marriage. I think I’ve managed to translate the culture for him, the whole courting thing. He’s very private though. It took a long time for that to happen."
The most moving moment for Scott was attending Hekmat’s graduation ceremony. "He’d never made it clear before, but he said to me then that it was like his second mother had come. I was crying when he went up to the stage. I was so proud."
Hekmat’s own mother inspired his love of learning. "She is happy about what I have achieved," says Hekmat, "but what really concerns her is that children should get married at this age. She felt frustrated in some way that she didn’t have control in my life."
"Rosie fits into a mother figure because I share some of my problems with her," says Hekmat. "When I was stressed and worried about my health she consoled me and was very helpful. I only spoke to my mother briefly about it because I thought my family might get upset, but despite having good friendships with people, especially with Rosie, it can’t be a substitute for your own family."
In January 2009, Hekmat travelled to the dangerous border region of Pakistan where his family was living. "I realised then how much I loved him," says Scott. "I was beside myself. I thought he could be shot and that would be it."
Despite the worry, Scott finds that looking after others is restful and healing. "When you love someone there’s an unconditional aspect to it. You’re not immersed in your own crap all the time. It’s also about nurturing people who’ve been broken or damaged or needy. This feeling was so strong of wanting to love them back."
After a long wait trying to bring them to Australia, Hekmat is finally living with his family again and is helping them to settle. He also helps other refugees resettle in Sydney through his job as a migrant youth worker.
With the change of government and immigration policy, some advocates are shifting their focus away from detention. "One of the beautiful things we’re seeing this year is family reunion," says Pamela Curr.
In the garden of Elaine Smith’s new house in Narre Warren, on the outskirts of Melbourne, tiny trees in pots sit inside newly dug holes, ready to be planted. She has moved from NSW to help resettle the families of the young men she was once writing to in detention. "I could do a lot of work at a distance before," says Smith, "but I can’t do it now. The women are arriving with little English and the kids."
Virginia Walker continues to visit Villawood every week armed with bags of food, ready to assist with claims and listen to the many stories asylum seekers have to tell. "The detention situation is not over," says Walker.
Meanwhile, Rosie Scott hopes to write another novel after abandoning her last one to work on the refugee anthology, but she has no regrets. "I think a lot of the women’s lives have been immeasurably enriched," says Scott, who has discovered Persian poetry and been inspired by Afghan culture. "A lot of the refugees are progressive. I love the way Abdul looks at things."
"I’m very proud he looks on me as his second mother. I never had a son. I have daughters and granddaughters. Abdul would be a lovely son."
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.