A home away from home

This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald ‘Weekender’ magazine in print and online on March 4, 2023. Image courtesy of Zara’s House.

In a white converted weatherboard church just away from a main road in Jesmond is Zara’s House. A secular not-for-profit centre that offers a range of support services for local refugee and asylum seeker women and children. It feels welcoming from the moment you walk in.

Established in 2016 by Sister Diana Santleben and Sister Betty Brown, it is a place of connection and community, a home away from home, for many new arrivals to the Hunter. A place to gather, learn, and meet other refugee and Australian women.

“When I’m sitting in that small office, people walk in, and you don’t know what they are coming to ask you for,” says Farida Francine Baremgayobo, the centre’s big-hearted project coordinator, who oversees the day-to-day running of the centre.

“So, I’m just here to listen and then if I can help, I do.”

Zara’s House supports the women they work with – many of them referred on by local settlement organisations, such as Mosaic Multicultural Connections – in any way they can.

The centre’s programs include conversational English and literacy classes, sewing and crafts classes, and mother language literacy classes in Arabic and Dari/Pashtu, because as Baremgayobo notes, “You can’t learn English if you are illiterate in your mother language.”

Around 20 women, children, and educators attend a variety of classes at Zara’s House each weekday, with many more dropping in for gatherings, meetings, advice, or to visit and help.

They also help their clients deal with organisations like Centrelink, prepare for the Australian citizenship test, offer driving classes, and sessions on subjects like women’s health, family relationships, and self-care, as well as provide additional material items that the women may need, like warm winter clothes for their children and extra bed sheets.

“You can’t work with women without a place to care for their kids,” says Baremgayobo.

The centre – which has a bright and engaging separate playroom for the children and a playground out back – provides on-site childminding for mothers attending classes and group gatherings. Dari/Pashtu classes and bi-lingual education are offered for children.

Swim classes are arranged for women and high school students too. This year, Zara’s House provided lessons for 65 women and youth in their community on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons at Wallsend Pool.

Volunteers are integral to the success of Zara’s House. (They are always on the lookout for more). Their volunteer team includes qualified educators, tutors, and teachers; many of them former primary school teachers and educated native speakers from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

“There’s a lot of people behind us as well,” says Baremgayobo of the support she and Mary Amponsah, the centre’s financial administrator, have in running Zara’s House.

This includes the management committee, its patrons (founders Santleben and Brown, and James Garvey), and members. All volunteers and employees are members of Refugees and Partners Inc., the registered charity behind the centre, at a cost of $5 a year. There are currently 125 members (though not all of them volunteer).

Various grants, corporate sponsors, partners, membership fees, and community donations also support the centre financially.

Both Baremgayobo, who is from Burundi, and Amponsah, who is from Ghana, have experienced firsthand the challenges of moving to Australia as new arrivals. It’s fuelled in them a desire to facilitate supportive and positive transitions for other women into their new home country.

For Baremgayabo, a former childcare educator and coordinator, the connection with Sisters Santleben and Brown is a long and personal one. “When I arrived in Australia 10 years ago, I came to Newcastle, I was seven months pregnant. I didn’t have a car, so when I had my baby, they offered to come and pick me up from the hospital and help me. We’ve been friends since then.”

Over the years, Santleben and Baremgayabo have worked together in different capacities such as the organisation of local multicultural events, as Baremgayabo is the president of the Hunter African Communities Council.

It’s easy to understand why when Santleben wanted to step back from her role at Zara’s House, she approached the community-minded Baremgayabo to step in. Which she did, starting in the role in late 2021. Amponsah, who holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Newcastle, took on the finance administration role soon after.

Lots of projects are underway at Zara’s House at the moment. Baremgayabo points them out as she shows me around the centre during my visit. A permanent shed is being built on-site after the centre lost goods they had in storage at the Old Wool Store facility in Wickham in February last year.  

The cubby house is being given a refresh and a new piece of play equipment, a timber and rope climbing frame, will be built from scratch and added to the shaded outdoor play area.

Overlooking the play area is a colourful mural painted by Astare Braaaksana, who attended Zara’s House, alongside it sits a flourishing garden.

The centre’s garden also includes two further spaces in the front yard. “There are vegetables, fruit, and flowers from different countries in the garden. Many are from Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East,” says Baremgayabo.

The women of Zara’s Place take turns looking after the gardens, and when they are ready to harvest, produce is divided up into small containers and put out on the centre’s round table to be shared amongst its community. The garden gives the women access to hard-to-find vegetables and skills that can also be applied to their own gardens.

Baremgayabo has various building projects earmarked for the men – many of them refugees from Afghanistan – who come with women and children attending sessions and often have nothing to do. As well as qualified tradespeople who volunteer their time and skills.

“When they build something for the outdoor area, the men can come here and maybe watch their grandchildren or children play here and feel proud. They can say, ‘I did this. I was part of this. I build a shed’. A good memory for them and it will help some forget about the war.”

Out the front of the centre, a car and a hot pink trailer branded ‘Zara’s House Kofe and Chai Tradition’ are parked. Both are used for the coffee and chai micro-business operated by Zara’s House to train women in hospitality and introduce them to the fundamentals of running a business. It is also a way for them to socialise and connect with the greater community at local events.

Seats are dotted throughout the gardens and spaces inside and outside of Zara’s House. It is a happy place. A comfortable place. People feel welcome and know they can come in and ask for help and Zara’s House will provide it as best they can.

“It’s always a joy to know how you can be a help to someone,” Amponsah says of what she enjoys most about her job. “Because even the tiny things you can help someone with, they are so appreciated. That makes me happy as well.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Baremgayabo. “My aim is to help people. That is who I am – even before I come to Zara’s House. I just don’t like to see problems. If I help someone and am successful, then I feel happy.”

Baremgayabo says she loves to see the people Zara’s House works with move forward and grow. “There are many of them,” she muses. Women who then go on to be accepted into universities, graduate with degrees, start businesses, and attain the jobs they wanted.

One woman who attended English classes recently passed her Australian citizenship test and called Baremgayabo to tell her the good news. She then invited her along to attend the citizenship ceremony. “When people come and they achieve something, you feel rewarded.”