After escaping war and persecution, most asylum seekers live in a detention centre for years mulling over the prospect of being returned to their dangerous country of origin. The luxury of buying furniture and electrical goods to set up a new home is not at the top of their priority list. Until the day of their release. It’s a challenge witnessed firsthand by Guido Verbist, cooperative manager of Marrickville’s The Bower Reuse & Repair Centre. He believes it’s our duty to help asylum seekers make a home.
With no funds to purchase household items, newly released refugees can access The Bower’s recycled furniture to build a nest for their family. “Newtown’s Asylum Seeker Centre was already sending people our way and we gave them 20 per cent discount [on repaired goods], so we thought why wouldn’t we try to help them more effectively?” explains Verbist.
The idea of reducing waste through education, repair, reuse and resale is The Bower’s driving force. The co-op has been making magic with discarded household goods for 17 years, and now incorporates repair workshops, a café and an online store into its inner west shop front. (Plus there’s a new Bower store in the works in Sydney’s Parramatta.)
Deep soul searching about helping asylum seekers occurred between the centre’s employees and volunteers, and this resulted in a brand new initiative for The Bower called From House to Home. And what an awesome project it is. Let’s count the benefits. “One is to divert more goods from landfill and give them a new life,” Verbist says.
“The second is to help asylum seekers buy second-hand goods for their house with $1000 gift certificates. It’s a very humane way of treating people – they can simply go shopping like anyone else in this country, they don’t have to beg for their furniture, or to accept whatever is decided is good for them. Then we deliver it in our truck at no cost.”
So who wears the cost? “The organisation, the repairs, the staff costs, the truck has to be operated. We realised we couldn’t give the service for free, so we started with the crowd-funding campaign,” clarifies Verbist. “We partnered with Mums 4 Refugees, who worked with us to promote the fundraising, and this resulted in more than $14,000. We also received two grants from The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, which gave us $25,000, and Sydney Mayor Foundation, which gave us $10,000.”
Each of those four centres has been given a $10,000 account with us and the caseworkers will refer families or individuals to us so they can come shopping.
The funds will be apportioned between four centres: Marist Youth Care, Newtown’s Asylum Seeker Centre, House of Welcome in Blacktown and Pyrmont Cares. “Each of those four centres has been given a $10,000 account with us and the caseworkers will refer families or individuals to us so they can come shopping,” says Verbist.
So let’s do the maths. With $10,000, the From House to Home project can fully furnish 10 homes for families of four with beds, tables and chairs, sofas, televisions, fridges, drawers and kitchen crockery, utensils and appliances. That’s $1000 to fully furnish a home for a family of four. Not bad, right?
But there’s more work to be done. Verbist tells us: “We would love more household items – we will help people repair them to sell in our store or use our referral database with more than 1000 organisations to get them diverted from landfill. We would also love people to donate money to the From House to Home program. We put funds aside for asylum seekers through case workers at each centre.”
The work being done at The Bower Centre is living up to the reputation of its namesake. The bowerbird throws nothing away; it collects items to give it a new life. “If you compare us with second hand stores like Salvos and Vinnies, they stop with just collecting good-quality goods. With the revenue, they finance their social welfare programs. For all those organisations recycling is a revenue stream to finance other programs; for us, recycling is an objective in its own right. We see the importance from an environmental perspective and from a social perspective. That’s why we are different.”