Words by: Molly Schmidt
Last year, I saw an amazing short film called the English Tea Project. The film aimed to show “how the small things can change the big picture on refugees and asylum seekers” and documented the story of an Afghani woman who began an English class for recently arrived refugees, helping them settle into their new lives and make connections. Refugee women, who were feeling lonely and disconnected from the community, were welcomed into a club where they learnt English whilst drinking copious amounts of tea. This project hugely helped the women with every day things like being able to organize doctor’s appointments and shopping independently. It provided a place for them to “smile and feel connected again” and it got me thinking what do we have like this in Perth?
With lots of media coverage being given to asylum seeker stories, I started wondering what sort of programs we have in Perth to help refugees settle into the community. About half an hour of google-ing and phone calls later I had found Jarrod McKenna and Teresa Lee, founders of the First Home Project.
The First Home Project began in 2012, in response to the rental crisis in Perth. Jarrod and Teresa, a vibrant couple in their thirties, noticed how difficult it is for newly processed refugees to find a home in Perth, with no prior rental history. The couple began a mission to find a place big enough for them to live in and also provide temporary accommodation for refugees. Although they found the perfect place in Midland, with three self-contained units and a nice bit of property, the banks wouldn’t grant them a mortgage.
Just as they were about to give up hope, a friend of theirs donated five thousand dollars to the cause, saying, “we can’t do what you’re doing, but we can give.” Then a friend of Jarrod and Teresa’s rang, and said they would lend them forty thousand dollars they had been saving for their own home, because they also wanted to support the project. This gave the couple the idea of crowd funding. With two weeks before they lost the property, Jarrod and Teresa, with the help of their son, Tyson, and Jarrod’s mum, Faye, turned to the community for help through a social media campaign. Over fourteen days they were able to raise six hundred thousand dollars, which enabled them to purchase the property. Jarrod and Teresa now live in the smallest unit with their son, with refugee families in the surrounding units.
My research began with a phone chat to Teresa Lee, who told me she and Jarrod met through Church, and that they had both been involved with asylum seeker work before the First Home Project. With a cheeky laugh she told me the First Home Project was her dream, and she pulled her husband along with her. When I met Jarrod a few days later, he backed this up saying, “like most great things I’m involved with, it’s because I was dragged along by my phenomenal wife.” Jarrod, who manages to look both wise and studious whilst rocking dreadlocks, said, “some people talk about welcoming refugees cos it’s the right thing to do, and sure, it is, but it’s also just life as it should be.”
Teresa explained that the families stay for about a year and a half, and the accommodation is designed to be short term. It’s a time for them to settle in, meet people and develop a rental history that will help them find their own home when they are ready to move on. Teresa said the refugees who live with them become like family to her. “Whilst we do function technically as their landlord and we do expect that they meet the requirements of any standard rental property because we need to be able to provide them with a reference. Really, the way that life works, it’s much more based on friendship.”
There are nineteen people living at the First Home Project at the moment, including families and people from Afghanistan and Iran. It may be hard to imagine so many people from different backgrounds sharing day-to-day life in the same space, but Jarrod said they all live like one big family, and every-day life is not that out of the ordinary. He said it’s “like a lot of families, only imagine if your next door neighbours were like an extended family.” Whilst describing a normal day, Jarrod said they go off to work or school, and then come home to do homework or exercise before dinner. He said it’s the “every day” things like connecting people for driving lessons, playing cards, working out together and even having cups of tea, which have more significance when shared.
The first family to pass through the program lived with Jarrod and Teresa for fourteen months. They were originally from the Congo, and had spent sixteen years in a refugee camp in Rwanda.
Twenty five year old Mureka Bake said her family did not have enough money to live, and it was hard to get a job. Although they found it difficult moving to a new country and learning a new language, she said Jarrod and Teresa and the First Home Project made her feel very welcome. With a smile she told me it was the little things, like sharing sugar and helping with cleaning, that made her feel at home. She said, “they were our landlords, and they were like friends. My goodness, I treated them like brothers and sisters. I couldn’t believe that they are our landlords because we shared everything.”
I was lucky enough to be invited to one of the Friday night community dinners at the First Home Project, where the current tenants and those who have passed through join Jarrod, Teresa and the rest of the team for an evening of amazing food, music and dancing. Walking around the corner when I arrived to see dozens of people from all different countries and backgrounds, sitting around a fire, talking and laughing, was a moment I’ll never forget. Standing to the side, my friend and I quietly took in the scene, feeling a little shy.
As soon as we were noticed, we were welcomed warmly—hugged and kissed like family members. With people dancing around a bustling kitchen to music that varied from San Cisco to traditional Persian tunes, I was struck with an image of unity–of smiling faces of people who have been through tough times, and are choosing to enjoy a new and better life. The sense of community was very strong as everyone contributed in their own way, chopping vegetables or stirring pots, washing dishes or stoking the fire. Teresa told me the project has brought great meaning to their lives, and the biggest thing she has learnt from it is what true hospitality looks like. “As soon as I walk through the door of any of the houses, you know, the kettle’s already on, and they’re in the kitchen starting to prep a meal, just cos I’ve come over to visit.”
Faye McKenna, Jarrod’s mother, acts as the administrator of the First Home Project. She manages the loans that have made the whole project possible, telling me there are twenty one loans from people all over Australia and some overseas, which are paid back from the rent raised from the three units. She said she finds working with the refugee tenants very rewarding, and she and her husband come to the First Home Project two to three times a week to help with driving lessons and homework amongst other things. Faye said it is “an absolute honour and privilege” working with the refugees and “making them feel welcome, improving their English on an on going basis.” English teachers of the refugees say their English skills are improving quickly, and Faye said this is because they are mixing with Australians every day giving them the opportunity to practice.
I remember taking a moment to stand and listen, looking around at what Teresa had told me with a laugh used to be a drug lab. The transformation was amazing, and from the beaten up guitar propped against the wall of philosophy books, to the children’s books and swing, the inspirational quotes on the wall, vegie garden and the basketball hoop outside–it was obviously a place for each and everyone to feel at home. I could hear a mix of different languages, pots sizzling on the stove, laughter, and underneath it all a classic pop song; Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’. Seeing everyone bopping their heads or tapping their feet to such a well known, familiar song really hit me with an image of our ‘sameness’.
After an amazing meal cooked by Ciere Pearson, I sat around the fire and talked to a group of young men who looked about my age. Many of them smiled shyly when I sat beside them, but soon livened up to chat. The boys, who I learned had fled the Taliban, now study through Tafe or are working, and have found connections and friends through the First Home Project.
With the help provided from the First Home Project, many of the refugees now have the tools and abilities to create the lives they came to Australia in search of. With passion, Jarrod told me “Homework lessons change lives. Driving lessons change lives. Helping somebody with their CV changes lives. Having a cup of tea with someone changes lives. And it’s not sexy, and it’s not spectacular, and it’s not going to make a Facebook update, but it’s real.”
On the Friday I was there, a fifteen-year-old boy from the Middle East celebrated his first birthday in Australia. His little face completely lit up when a tray of cupcakes came out, and everyone at the dinner began to sing. After such a beautiful moment showing Australians welcoming asylum seekers and celebrating together, Jarrod shared a story about a refugee family who became emotional when he invited them in for a cup of tea. He told me they had been in Australia for seven years, and had never been welcomed into an Australian’s home. He said “being there for someone means so much, when so often you’re treated like a no-body, or your made fun of because of your head covering, or people have no time for you at the check-out because you didn’t pronounce something right and it’s your third or fourth language.”
After sharing such a lovely experience with them, it’s hard to understand how people forget asylum seekers are people just like us. Jarrod said part of the problem is the way we view refugees. “It’s not rocket-science, it’s cups of tea, and asking people how they’re going, asking about their kids. They’re phenomenal. I mean, they’re also as problematic and annoying as the rest of us as well, but that’s the point. They’re just like us. And if we could see that, and see the people just like us who have come out of war zones, or situations of persecution and have made it, I think they all deserve a standing ovation.”
I have to agree with him.