17 June 2024

Holiday retreat for refugees to help them feel at home

Refugee families will be able to relax and settle in at a new church holiday sanctuary especially for them. Picture: iStock.

Jenan Taylor

21 December 2023

Refugee families will play soccer, dance, sing and feast at a new holiday retreat, and organisers hope it will also help them feel more at ease and at home in the Australian community.

A team of parishioners from St Thomas’ Burwood and other churches in a community refugee sponsorship program will take about 60 children and adult refugees to East Gippsland just after Christmas for what will be for many their first Australian holiday.

A joint initiative of Embrace Sanctuary Australia and Scripture Union Australia, the inaugural Sanctuary Family Retreat aims to be a safe and supported space where humanitarian refugee and asylum seeker families and the church team can relax, mingle and get to know each other.

Embrace Sanctuary Australia chief executive Naomi Chua said many of the refugees spoke no English and carried high levels of trauma, so the idea was to provide them with culturally-aware, trauma-informed hospitality and care.

Read more: Teenagers grow in faith at joint youth group

Ms Chua said many of the refugees had recently arrived from the Middle East, and among them were families who fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took over, while others had lived a decade of uncertainty in Australia as they waited to hear about their visa status.

But she said they were all excited at the prospect of having a break in the countryside and seeing native animals.

“This is beyond their wildest dreams that they could come away and have a holiday and have fun activities for the kids and be welcomed into a community,” Ms Chua said.

Scripture Union Australia field development manager Chris Helm said he and Ms Chua came up with the idea for the sanctuary after their church, St Thomas’, started supporting a refugee family under the community sponsorship scheme arrived.

He said the parishioners were doing a wonderful job of helping them settle in, but started to realise how confronting it perhaps was for the refugees to not have their own family or friends around as they tried to start anew.

Mr Helm said he and Ms Chua wanted to do whatever they could to help make the families’ transition as supported as possible, while enabling church supporters to also find ways to reduce language and cultural barriers.

Read more: Churches sponsor new start for humanitarian refugees

The program focus at the sanctuary would not be on Christian content for that reason, and because some of the families came from a range of faith backgrounds, he said.

Mr Helm said the team wanted the participants to feel the love and welcome of a Christian community without feeling they had to adopt a doctrine of any kind.

“We hope to be a blessing to these recently arrived families. At the same time, in the same way that the gospels talk about encountering Jesus in unlikely people or unlikely places, we’re quite excited about how we might be going to encounter Jesus in these people and families and how they’re going to be helping us as we interact and grow together,” Mr Helm said.

He said many parishioners, including children, put their hands up to run workshops and games for the refugees at the retreat.

Mr Helm said they hoped to help bring the refugees and church team closer together in ways that transcended language, and planned to play soccer and do canoeing, as well offer segregated women only dancing classes, and the chance to complete a co-created piece of art.

But he said he anticipated the main means of engagement for everyone would be through food, smiles, encouragement, and fun.

The Sanctuary Family Retreat will be held from 27 December to 1 January 2024.

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