By Danielle Kutchel
A lifetime of serving those keen to make Australia their home has seen a south-eastern treasure earn one of the country’s highest honours.
Narre Warren South resident Elaine Smith can now add the letters ‘OAM’ to her name, after being listed in the Queen’s Birthday honours on Monday 14 June.
She received the honour for her services to refugees.
There have been many services over the years, but it all stems from her passion for ensuring everyone has access to a safe and welcoming home.
“I always thought Australians were generous people who would save others in need,” she explained.
“It was a shock when our policies seemed to be so opposed to that – so that’s why I started taking action.”
She began by calling nearby refugee agencies and asking how she could help them, and soon was hosting those waiting on confirmation of their refugee status in mini-holidays in the small town she lived in at the time.
Then, she began writing letters to those stuck in detention centres, particularly on Nauru.
She would send them gifts of the things they needed, like shoes or watches.
“I tried to be a friend and communicate to the people because they were isolated,” she said.
“People needed a way that their humanity was restored, because it was being cut away by the detention system.
“I wanted that person to know there was another person that did recognise him or her as a human being and they were not forgotten, and they have our respect.”
She even housed refugees in her own home, offering her rooms as their official place of detention to get them out of the cold, clinical and isolated system, which she said had traumatised the adults and children she had dealt with.
Ms Smith and her husband soon moved from the mid-north coast of New South Wales to Victoria where they settled near Dandenong, intending to be closer to the burgeoning refugee community so they could better provide assistance.
Once there, Ms Smith became involved in various causes around the Greater Dandenong area: she’s been a volunteer at Friends of Refugees in Springvale since 2012, and at Springvale Community Aid Advice Bureau, Wellsprings for Women, Catholic Care, AMES and the Southern Migrant and Refugee Centre, at various times, since 2008.
Turning her attention to families, she recognised the need for a space for women to make friends and access assistance if needed.
She collaborated with the Hampton Park Community House to create the Women’s Friendship Cafe in Hampton Park in 2012.
“It’s not for one particular culture; it’s for everybody, a spot where we can make new friends and at the same time there is somebody there who can be sensitive enough to hear if there is an issue that needs addressing, and assist that woman to find whatever she needs,” Ms Smith explained.
With Australia’s treatment of refugees firmly back in the headlines, Ms Smith said she continues to support causes like Friends of Refugees to help feed, educate and support asylum seekers.
“It’s only through groups like Friends of Refugees providing food and assistance that they manage to survive,” she said.
While it’s not been easy – and while in many respects Ms Smith said she feels that Australia’s policies around refugees have deteriorated – she is comforted by the knowledge that she has made a difference to many people’s lives.
She fondly recalled a man whom she helped to obtain a new prosthetic leg when he was released from detention.
At a celebratory event in Fitzroy, the man danced in her honour as a special way of saying thankyou.
But she said all of her achievements have been a team effort, won by many people working together.
“I am happy with the [OAM], but I consider it an award that’s shared because anything I did was because somebody gave me courage and showed me how to do something, and somebody did something courageous and wise that I could follow,” she said.
“This award is for the group really – it’s for the people who work on this issue.”