Catholic preschools open doors to asylum seeker children

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Mayor Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour, JRS director Carolina Gottardo, head of SCECS Franceyne O’Connor, Sydney Alliance campaign chairperson Alexandra Hogan. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Sydney Catholic Early Childhood Services will open its doors from early next year to children of asylum seekers as part of a grassroots movement giving hope to some of the city’s most vulnerable people.

SCECS will allocate one space per day in its Auburn and Sadlier-Miller preschool and long day care centres.

It follows an initiative begun this year by the Canterbury-Bankstown Council which has allocated a fee-free place each day in three underutilised child care centres to asylum seeker children.

The Sydney Alliance of churches, community groups and other organisations, including the Archdiocese of Sydney, reached out to Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour last October with a delegation including Father Remy Lam Son Bui, then parish priest of St Luke’s, Revesby, Sr Jan Barnet RSJ, Ruth Moraes of the archdiocesan Justice and Peace Office and Maeve Brown of the Jesuit Refugee Service.

They asked the council to consider making spaces available for parents on bridging visas who do not receive the Federal Childcare Subsidy and therefore face childcare fees sometimes in excess of $100 per day.

At a celebration of the pilot program on 23 October in Bankstown, Mayor Asfour said that the decision to support the Sydney Alliance campaign was a “no-brainer” as the area is often the “first port of call” for arrivals to the country who are seeking asylum and announced it would be made permanent.

The SCECS initiative is similar to the Bankstown model, which will include training staff to meet the unique needs of the children and their families.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP blesses the new childcare centre in Sadleir. Photo: Kitty Beale
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP blesses the new childcare centre in Sadleir on its 18 August official opening. Photo: Kitty Beale

“This is a great opportunity to form a partnership with the Justice and Peace Office and the Jesuit Refugee Service to support some of our community’s most vulnerable families at a time when they really need us,” said Franceyne O’Connor, head of SCECS.

“We’re only a young organisation and this is a great way to start. It will have a huge impact on those children and their families.”

Sydney Alliance campaign chairperson Alexandra Hogan said it was very rewarding to see the impact on families who had often experienced trauma, and inspiring to see the movement growing among early childhood learning providers.

“Too often kids on bridging visas start school without any prior early learning experience, limited social interaction, and with little English,” she said.

“When people are denied access to services, the problems do not simply disappear.

Rather they tend to manifest themselves in other ways further down the line.” Father Peter Smith, Justice and Peace Promoter for the Archdiocese of Sydney commended SCECS for its initiative at the instigation of the Justice and Peace Office to offer support for the vulnerable group.

“Let’s hope that the Catholic Church’s response will encourage religious leaders to show some compassion for these most broken people,” he said.

Sr Jan Barnet said the outreach was a “wonderful initiative” which has already enriched the lives of 12 young children and their families this year. “The first six years of a child’s life are critical and if we’re not prepared to help the most vulnerable people in our society at this time then I think it’s a very sad reflection on all of us as Australians,” she said.

Mayor Asfour told The Catholic Weekly he was pleased the initiative has taken off in Sydney. “This means that parents can make their medical and legal appointments, conduct job search or training while their children are interacting with other children, having fun, gaining social skills and learning English.”

JRS director Carolina Gottardo said that most people in Australia do not realise the conditions people who are seeking asylum actually live. “They do not have access to services and rights that we all take for granted. Every day we see situations of forced destitution,” she said.

“If you receive little to nor support from the government, you have to work and you have childcare responsibilities, what are you meant to do if you have a very small child?

“A thing like this makes it possible for both the parents and the children to change the cycle of disadvantage they become trapped into. The vast majority of people seeking asylum will have their refugee statue recognised. So it doesn’t make any sense not to invest in the children from the beginning.”

Anyone with interest or expertise in supporting the initiative is invited to contact Ruth Moraes: [email protected] or 02 9307 8462.

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