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Emma at home in House of Welcome


She’s worked as a zookeeper and on an animal therapy farm, looked after asylum seeker children in community detention and taught English and swimming, but Emma Yengi says providing much-needed help to asylum seekers and refugees living in Adelaide has been her greatest career choice so far. 

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Taking over as manager of the Vinnies House of Welcome and Vinnies Refugee and Asylum Seeker Service at Kilburn in July last year has been a bit like ‘coming home’ for the mum of two boys and foster parent to a 15-year-old daughter.

Her face will be familiar to many who use the service, as from 2014-2020 Emma was employed at the Mercy House of Welcome run by the Sisters of Mercy at the same location. Initially, she volunteered to teach English and then took on the role of assistant coordinator, helping lawyer/migration agent Sr Mary Symonds rsm and coordinator Meredyth Taylor with more legal-based work.

When Vinnies opened its centre at Kilburn in 2020 there were still more than 500 asylum seekers who had arrived in SA nearly a decade previously still on Temporary Protection Visas requiring assistance.

With the Albanese Government making a pre-election promise to abolish the Temporary Protection and Safe Haven visas to fast-track the process and restore family reunion visas, there is hope their situations may change soon. However, for now, Emma says the free service offered by Vinnies is “very much needed”.

“We have hundreds of people on our books, all in different visa and living situations,” she told The Southern Cross.

“Because we have the legal service here we are very holistic in our approach – we look after the roof over their head, the food in their tummy, and the legal and practical things such as visa renewals and helping companions to apply for Medicare or fill in a Centrelink form.

“Some of the asylum seekers we see are moving forward but some can’t…because they are mentally and physically broken or don’t have enough English or qualifications.

“Many are just sitting in limbo and that’s why we need to exist because the Government doesn’t support them.”

The centre offers material assistance in the way of food, clothing, and payment of essential service bills; covers the accommodation costs for some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers; provides housing and immigration information; supports asylum seekers released from detention; and offers financial counselling and referrals to other agencies. English language classes are available at the nearby community centre and the service can also provide funding for vocational education training.

With only one paid employee, the service relies heavily on the valuable contribution of a committed group of volunteers, with funding almost entirely coming from community and business donations.

“Our volunteers have unique skills – while there is admin to do, they also need to understand something of the asylum seeker journey, the visa system and there is a bit of casework as well,” Emma explained. “We are always looking for volunteers, so we would love people to get in touch if they have the time and skills to help.”

She added that they were very grateful for the ongoing support received from St Brigid’s School and members of the Clearview-Kilburn parish.

Reflecting on her mixed bag of work experiences, combined with studies in community development, Emma said she always felt motivated to come to work and got satisfaction from assisting asylum seekers – predominantly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Sri Lanka – in the local community.

“I like working with the volunteers and I love the people we support. I am passionate about the cross-cultural work and the community we have here in Kilburn,” she said.

The Vinnies Refugee and Asylum Seeker Service in Le Hunte St, Kilburn, is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 10am-2pm. Walk-ins are welcome.

Volunteer enquiries: email or phone 8340 3053.


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