This Sunday 27 September marks the 2020 World Day of Migrants and Refugees. To gain some insight into the daily realities faced by displaced people, we spoke to Sr Rita Malavisi, rsj, long-term volunteer with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) and recent winner of the National Volunteer of the Year Award from the Fundraising Institute of Australia for her fundraising efforts for the ASRC. Sr Rita has been with the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart since 1986, and for the last 18 years, has volunteered with the ASRC, visiting refugees in detention centres regularly, to bring hope to a place where hope is often in short supply. She is currently living in Melbourne, completing her Master of Arts – Pastoral Studies from Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, after just having completed the Institute of Religious Formation Program from CTU, Chicago.

Could you tell us more about the National Volunteer of the Year award in 2020 from the fundraising institute of Australia?

Around July last year, the ASRC, they calculated that I had raised thousands of dollars for the ASRC through my different efforts through schools, or advocating for social justice or getting a group together called Nuns on the Run, where we run for refugees in the Melbourne Marathon.

Every year for the Melbourne Marathon, I’ve done the 10k run for refugees. When we did a Nuns on the Run team. And for that year we had a super-duper fundraiser. The team of nuns on the run raised $17,000 for that one year. I raised $4,000. Because of that, they nominated me to the Fundraising Institute of Australia. I had no idea. I won the Victorian award in November last year so they Skyped me from Chicago to let me know that I’d won the Victorian award. And then in February this year, they rang me to say that I’d won the national award.

What motivates you in this work?

In the bible, Matthew 25:35 says, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I believe that Catholic Social Teaching also takes its message from early in the Old Testament. That’s where the respect and care owing to the stranger is established. In the book of Leviticus we find the following exhortation: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34) Why do we do the things that we do? For me, it’s also being a sister of St Joseph following the footsteps of Mary MacKillop who said in one of her letters, ‘Be kind to foreigners. Remember I was a foreigner once, and as such was never laughed at, nor unkindly treated’ (letter dated 6 March 1900). In my family psyche, there’s been displacement. When anyone asks me about my origins and my family, I always start with ‘oh, it’s a long story’. I am first born Australian. My mother and father came to Australia from Syria in 1957. My brother was born in Syria. My mother’s background was Palestinian and my father’s background Italian. In 1948, my mother’s family had to leave Palestine and returned to Syria. Displacement is in my family story, so of course I’m going to work with asylum seekers and refugees.

You took students so from a variety of different schools. What was their response?

I was working at Penola Catholic College at the time. We decided to visit a detention centre as part of the Christian service program, which still continues. Whenever asylum seekers and refugees and migrants came up in their classes in their RE topics, the students would say, ‘they’re boat people! They’re queue jumpers! We shouldn’t let them in.’ And so a couple of teachers and I thought, why don’t we offer students the opportunity to visit a detention centre so that they can meet people genuinely coming into our country to escape persecution? So we talked to students and took a group. There was one student, one of the most vocal against asylum seekers, who came with us. And after visiting, her life was changed. She was shocked. ‘They’re not supposed to be in there, we’re going to do something about it!’ She then motivated the other students to come with her on more visits. I’ve found that if you bring a person to meet an asylum seeker, it will change them completely. That’s one of the reasons why I started working and volunteering for the ASRC more than 18 years ago. It’s not until you meet someone that they become a person, not just a label. Most of these people are fleeing persecution; persecution unto death. They’re not just economic migrants, or just people coming here for a bit of a better life.

Do these people continue visiting or volunteering by themselves? Did it start a chain reaction of care and compassion?

Some went on themselves to be teachers, particularly the ones that I reconnected with post-school. At the school, whenever someone else heard that they that someone else going to the detention centre, others would say, can we go as well? It creates little waves almost. The little ripple effect that goes out.

What is ASRC doing during COVID? How are these people who are arguably some of the most vulnerable people in our society coping?

Since COVID, the number of families that the ASRC are helping has doubled. At the moment the ASRC are feeding about 1,400 people fortnightly with food delivery. So that’s about 500 families or 500 households. Many people in the refugee community had entry-level employment, especially in hospitality, so they lost their jobs. These people are either asylum seekers who have come to Australia and have been accepted as refugees or asylum seekers waiting to be processed. They’re living in the community, working, but because they are mainly working in hospitality or cleaning, most of them have lost employment. And they’re not covered under Jobkeeper; there’s no safety net for them.

That’s a bleak picture, with so many people basically dependent on the ASRC. What’s the way out?

If people want to help, they can always do an online supermarket delivery to the ASRC. During restrictions, they’re not allowed to accept donated goods directly. Coles does free delivery to the ASRC on a particular day. So, if I buy some groceries and have them delivered to the ASRC, I don’t have to pay a delivery cost. The information is there on the website or the Facebook page. They’re also still taking financial donations for their September appeal. I’m supporting a school around the corner here once a month to do a grocery drop off. We’ve got Fitzroy flats right here and Collingwood flats. Families there are doing it tough too. Families everywhere are doing it tough.

The lockdown is affecting everyone – we look at our own situations and sometimes forget about other people, including those from refugee communities, and how much more difficult it probably is for them. It throws everything into perspective.

Maybe the lesson is to think of ourselves less and other people more. I take my inspiration from Pope Francis. In his first pastoral visit out of Rome after he was made Pope was to the island of Lampedusa in 2013 where thousands of refugees have lost their lives. He did that so that we could see his witness. It’s our duty as Christians, as followers of Jesus, to reach out to those who are most in need. Afterward at that Mass, he prayed: Father we beg forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters. And our Australian Catholic Bishops have said that so many times in different little things that you know that we have to respond. These bishops are continually asking us to reach out to those who are in need. In their 2015-16 social justice statement, the Australian Bishops talk about migrants and refugees saying: ‘we have lost sight that these are the faces of our brothers and sisters who are lost, hurting and displaced.’

You were studying in Chicago earlier this year. When your studies finish, do you have any plans to go back to and volunteer for the ASRC or continue your volunteering activities?

It’s depending on where I’m appointed. But somewhere in my life, I will make room to work with asylum seekers. And I’m not sure which organization that will be with. Social Justice is a passion for me. Catholic social teaching is a passion for me, it will always be a part of my life. I will still be advocating for asylum seekers wherever I am.


Are there any connections that you’ve made over the years that have particularly stood out to you?

There was a family that I knew from where I was when I was working in Footscray. The three children were all Primary School at that time. I have remained firm friends with that family and two of the children are adults now, permanent residents in our country, and they have their own children. When I met them, they got letters from the government to say they had two weeks before they were going to be deported. So you work with those people to help them to get their cases heard. You really stay close to those families. You’re always building lifelong connections with people. The first guy I went to visit in detention, he will always be special to me. When he was released from detention, a group of them were put into empty presbytery in Balwyn. Two of us volunteers drove there the night they were released and we saw them walking down the street. The joy in us and the joy in them! Your world just expands.

When someone goes out to visit a detention centre, what’s it like for someone in detention who meets with them? Is meeting a random assortment of people who are genuinely welcoming and trying to help something that really makes a difference?

Yes. When the system imprisons them or detains them and gives them no hope whatsoever, the visitors are the ones that bring hope for them. Even though we are not professionals, we’re not lawyers, we’re not going there with a particular purpose, we are there as companions. We’re there to make their time pass a little bit easier, a little bit quicker. Our role is also to love them, and to say, ‘we support you even though the whole system has you detained. We don’t agree with it. And we will be here with you.’ Didn’t Jesus say ‘whatever you do for the least of these you do for me?’ One lesson I learned is that I go there to help them, but it’s actually the people who’ve got the least are the ones that give the most. I get more out of it than what I’m giving to it, and I didn’t realize that that was going to happen as well. They give me hope, by what they’re going through. They’ve got nothing to give me. Here’s a story: there was a youth minister that went to visit. It was his birthday coming up. He was a trained chef. The boys in detention, there were about 10 of them, these boys saved at the butter portions for the week and they made a cake using two-minute noodles. That was the birthday cake. They put the butter portions into the two-minute noodles to make it more tasty. Now, here they come presenting the two-minute noodle plate to the trained chef. And to this day he still says to me that was the best birthday cake ever. The boys had nothing to give but their butter portions for the week to make his birthday cake from two-minute noodles. The ones who have got the least give the most.

If you’d like to donate food to ASRC, click here. Visit the ASRC website hereand Facebook page here.