by Illsa Cunningham for The Blue Mountains Gazette 8 June 2020
The Tampa incident in 2001 spurred Marie Standen into action.
Disgusted by the way the government was treating refugees, she wrote a letter to the Gazette asking if anyone else was appalled about the upsurge in racial prejudice and wanted to get together to make a difference.
Her letter struck a chord. In December, the first meeting of the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group was held in Lawson, attended by more than 100 people.
“We were astonished, and from that meeting the group has grown,” Mrs Standen said.
On Monday, the Faulconbridge resident was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for service to refugees, and to the community of the Blue Mountains.
“I must admit it’s a great honour, there isn’t any doubt about that,” she said.
The 89-year-old is enormously pleased with the group’s accomplishments over the years.
They visit refugees in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and through extensive fundraising they have been able to help refugees settling in the community with the cost of education, paying bills, or replacing worn out clothes or shoes, or when their children might be in need of new glasses.
“I don’t know how they manage on the little money we give them,” Mrs Standen said.
“$20,000 a month we’re paying out in support. The Blue Mountains community is very generous and kept us afloat. Now we’re being supported from all over.”
The group has grown to a membership of about 800, with hundreds of supporters on top of that attending the group’s fundraising functions.
The group also supports Ocean Twelve, a cricket team of Tamil refugees, and they are the conduit between a program at Blaxland High School where students repair old cars, and refugees on struggle street, desperate for a set of wheels.
“I’m most proud of the fact that after 19 years it [the group] is still operating and I’m proud of the fact I had the gumption to do something in the first place,” Mrs Standen said.
“Mind you, when you stick your neck out there are lots of people who want to chop it off. I’ve had lots of threats but they have never eventuated to anything.”
There were threatening phone calls and emails, but Mrs Standen “rode through the unpleasantness.”
“I’m surprised there’s not more,” she said.
Mrs Standen became interested in the plight of refugees in the early 80s, when Vietnamese refugees were arriving in Australia by boat, fleeing their country after the end of the Vietnam War. She was the deputy principal at Fairfield High School at the time, later going on to take the reins as principal of Katoomba High from 1988-1992.
Her work with the refugee support group has been possible thanks to a supportive local community.
“I’ve made an awful lot of friends; people who I wouldn’t have met and I have worked with them and it’s been great,” Mrs Standen said.
But she says there’s much work still to be done.
“I’m disappointed that we have not been able to change government policy so we treat our refugees with humanity.”