Bridge: our foundation story
In the early 2000s, Virginia Walker started to correspond with asylum seekers in detention centres in Western Australia and South Australia after enquiring of and being given names by Julian Burnside in Victoria. In 2002, she started to visit many of these asylum seekers who had been transferred to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (VIDC) in Sydney.
One of those Virginia met in VIDC was a Shia Kuwaiti man, let’s call him SK. Some time after meeting Virginia, SK was transferred by Immigration to Western Australia. However, SK’s lawyer was in Sydney and so he was sent back to Sydney for an interview with the lawyer. Immigration paid for SK’s return plane fare but didn’t give him any money for expenses. He was penniless and had no place to stay. Luckily, he had Virginia’s phone number and, once she knew his plight, Virginia invited SK to stay with her. During this time, she supported SK financially as every day he had to report into the Parramatta Immigration Office (on weekends at the Parramatta police station near the Immigration Office).
It was while supporting SK that Virginia was again visiting VIDC and discovered that a man she had just met would be released the next day and he had no place to stay, no money, no friends, no work rights, no Centrelink support. With her second bedroom already occupied, she needed to find another place for him. She did manage to find cheap daily accommodation for which she paid but the man had to be out of the room by the early morning and could not return until late afternoon. This was both expensive and unsuitable.
These experiences, together with others, made Virginia determined to do something. She gathered together a few friends as well as some of the other VIDC visitors to determine if a foundation could be started to provide funds for asylum seekers in the same situation as her two friends. Frances Milne, a VIDC visitor, was heavily involved in the Uniting Church and, acting upon her suggestion and subsequent representation, Bridge for Asylum Seekers Foundation (BASF and now Bridge) became an autonomous committee under the auspices of Uniting, providing the new foundation with the advantages of charity status as well as the imprimatur of the church.
Virginia and Frances remained key committee members of Bridge until retiring in July 2017. Virginia did all banking and receipting, as well as keeping in touch with as many people, clients and donors, as possible while also visiting VIDC on a weekly basis. Frances was the link to Uniting along with a key partner organisation, Balmain for Refugees, which focused on asylum procedural and legal support.
In 2006, Virginia was awarded a Human Rights Community Individual Award for the work she undertook on behalf of Bridge and in 2014 was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (AM) for her human rights work. In 2012, Frances Milne received an AM for her service to the multicultural communities of NSW, as a contributor to human rights and social justice for refugees and asylum seekers, and to the Uniting Church in Australia.