20 years of service: a recognition to refugees and those who work with them

20 years of service: a recognition to refugees and those who work with them

The Queen’s Birthday 2022 Honours List came out on 13 June. Among the Uniting Church people across the country who received an award in the General Division of the Order of Australia is Jennifer Jane Toisuta’s service to asylum seekers and refugees.

But there is much more behind recognising more than 20 years of commitment to a cause. Jenny Toisuta went to Indonesia as a young woman, working with the Australian Council of Churches. During her trip, she met an Indonesian, Willi Toisuta, son of a minister in the church of West Timor. After getting married, they spent a few years in Sydney and returned to Indonesia in 1973, where they both worked at Satya Wacana Christian University. For Jenny, Indonesia is the country that provided her and her three children home for over 30 years.

Insights Magazine spoke with her about this recognition and what it means to her and her cause.

Ms Toisuta is a Co-Founder of Balmain for Refugees, Balmain Uniting Church, and has volunteered since 2002. She is a current member of the Management Committee.  

She initially started visiting the Villawood detention centre with members of Balmain Uniting Church in April 2002. They were concerned about the plight of asylum seekers suffering long-term detention and isolation and hoped regular visits would help reduce their boredom. Along the way, they discovered that many of those they visited had not adequately assessed their claims to protection due to poor immigration advice. They were threatened with being deported back to danger in their home country. They needed help, and there was much more that could be done.

“I hope that the award is evidence of growing community recognition that Australia needs to increase the number of refugees we accept from countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar in the coming years.”

With time she understood that speaking Indonesian was a significant asset that could help many families seeking asylum. She started by understanding the dangers they faced and finding pro bono lawyers or migration agents to help them present their cases and attend interviews.

Other volunteers did the same for asylum seekers from China, Sri Langka, Burma and many African and Middle Eastern countries.

With time, her work became more focused on assisting those who had their permanent visas granted to bring their families to Australia, apply for Medicare and Centrelink payments, enrol their children in schools and English courses, and translate for them on doctor’s appointments, among others.

In 2007, Helen Donnelly, a member of Epping Uniting Church, who speaks Indonesian too, joined Ms Toisuta. Since that time, they have shared the work of helping refugees from Aceh, Indonesia, focusing on those with specific problems that they can’t solve on their own. 

“This is a great honour for me. It has been a real privilege and very enriching to me personally to walk beside some amazing people first as they sought to convince authorities of the dangers they faced and then to adjust to the very different and more complex life in Australia.”

The most significant challenge Ms Toisuta has faced over the years is the rigid immigration laws toward refugees and the decreasing government support for asylum seekers in Australia. But on the other hand, she has met many wonderful people, their families and other volunteers who have fed her memorable journey, including Balmain Uniting Church. They have strongly supported the work of the volunteers by allowing them to use the church office and providing generous financial support, from paying for phone cards, vital medicines, documents translation and emergency aid, among others.

Building a courageous church requires courageous people of God, willing to grow and provide hope to others. Insights Magazine would like to congratulate Jenny, Helen, the Balmain and Epping Uniting Churches and all of those who have helped volunteers in their journey and received their help. This is a recognition not only of Jenny’s work but of all those who have come to Australia in faith, willing to find a new home.

The 2022 Queen’s Birthday Honours list recognised 992 Australians, including 669 in the General Division of the Order of Australia, and awards for meritorious, distinguished and conspicuous service. The Honours List is available here.

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