Roseanne Rofaeel is a Chaldean woman, the eldest of four and the founder of Christmas on the Streets (COTS)—a not-for-profit organisation supporting women and men experiencing homelessness in Australia. Roseanne’s family were persecuted Christians who fled Iraq in the 1990s in search of a safe place to live.
Last year, COTS celebrated its fifth anniversary. The organisation coordinates hundreds of volunteers and supports thousands of people in need across the country. It all began when Roseanne was still a student and the dream began to take form in her heart:
I was walking the streets of Melbourne in November, leading up to Christmas, thinking what to do for my birthday ... I went up to the first person I saw, I sat down with him and said, ‘If I could get you a Christmas present, what would it be?’
A spirit of service has always been present in Roseanne’s family. She grew up seeing her mother prepare meals for those less fortunate, and her father helped out in the parish with whatever was needed. As a teenager, her deep love and appreciation for Mother Teresa inspired a desire to move to Kolkata, India, and to dedicate her life to serving the poorest of the poor. But when Roseanne expressed this desire to her mother, her mother encouraged her to focus on her studies first. Out of frustration, Roseanne donated all the gifts she received for her 17th, 18th and 19th birthdays to build water wells in Cambodia, Ethiopia and Mozambique. When she was sent photos of children drinking from a well she had helped fund, she thought this would be a way to convince her mother to support her dream:
[The children] could now go to school because they did not need to fetch [water]. I said, ‘Yes! My mum has to let me go.’
But Roseanne remained in Melbourne to pursue her studies in psychology. Walking the streets of Melbourne’s CBD to get to class, she crossed paths with many people experiencing homelessness. On a cold November day, she experienced a moment of clarity:
I heard the Lord’s voice saying: ‘Hey, you have not gone there [to Kolkata] not because I did not make room for you to go but because you need to start here.’ I also remember hearing Mother Teresa’s voice in prayer saying, ‘I have enough people in Kolkata. We need someone to look after people here.’
On their way to university, Roseanne and her friends started, in small ways, to attend to some of the needs of the people they encountered who were experiencing homelessness. They would offer them a meal, a cup of coffee or a warm blanket. Roseanne did this with her friends and then with her siblings. But according to Rihan Rofaeel, Roseanne’s youngest sister, what seemed most revolutionary about Roseanne’s approach at the time was her idea to get Christmas presents for people experiencing homelessness. The efforts of Rosanne and her friends and family to match the gifts to the recipients’ wishes made the gesture much more personal and took the relationships they were building ‘to a whole new level’.
The first Christmas giveaway took place on 18 December 2016 and brought together Roseanne’s family and closest friends. More than 100 people experiencing homelessness turned up that day. The volunteers found everyone on their gift list and emptied their trolleys. Roseanne, her family and friends knew that this was not going to be the last time. They had found a purpose.
Today, COTS is present in Melbourne and Sydney and is looking to expand to the Gold Coast and Perth. Everyone at COTS is a volunteer, from Roseanne as the CEO and Rihan as the Outreach Coordinator to the newest recruit. They all try to make sure that people experiencing homelessness have their most basic needs met: something to eat and drink, credit on their phones, a sleeping bag or a hotel room, someone to accompany them to a doctor’s appointment.
The organisation runs two major events throughout the year, in July and December. In July they host a winter event where people experiencing homelessness can have a shower, get brand new clothes in a ‘shopping-like’ experience, enjoy a meal cooked by a chef and maybe speak to a mental health counsellor. In December, to honour the first Christmas giveaway, they host a barbecue on Christmas Day, where they distribute Christmas presents and make sure that no one has to spend Christmas alone.
COTS also delivers educational workshops to primary and secondary school students to help reduce the stigma associated with homelessness. They have helped to build a school in Nepal, fundraised to support an elderly home in Zimbabwe and donated to an orphanage in the Philippines.
Roseanne, Rihan and the hundreds of volunteers at COTS remind us that we are all called to love and serve our neighbours, and to forge meaningful relationships with those we encounter on our way through life. Roseanne notes:
By thinking about the poor as just people, without the label, I am more likely to see their innate dignity, worth and beauty before I see anything else.
Melbourne Catholic28 November 2023
VMCH28 November 2023