Helga Svendsen CEO Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project

29 May 2012 By Hannah Carrodus

Helga Svendsen
Helga Svendsen

Helga Svendsen (WCLP ’10) warms her hands in her chilly North Melbourne office. The old building’s heating has busted, Helga explains, which is the reason she is wearing a large fleece over her jeans.

 The petite woman with a friendly smile certainly doesn’t seem like a typical CEO. Helga chats enthusiastically about her new role as CEO of the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, not appearing time-pressed despite her busy workload. Helga has been CEO of the Asylum Seeker Project for three months now and she obviously enjoys her job.

The Asylum Seeker Project was started 15 years ago by a few volunteers who encountered significant numbers of Timorese asylum seekers awaiting their claims. These asylum seekers were not permitted to work in Australia and were given no support by the government. With many of them arriving with limited resources and having no ability to earn, they were not in an enviable position.

“If you’ve got no support, no family here you’re literally left starving, destitute and homeless,” Helga says.

So the volunteers set up the Asylum Seeker Project to provide asylum seekers with housing and food. It was run entirely off private donations.  Over the years the Project grew in size and these days it provides asylum seekers with $2.6 million in services annually.

In the past year the Asylum Seeker Project’s staff has doubled to 25 workers, and next year their staff numbers will increase by a further 50 per cent. The Project is part of the Uniting Care network, and the community program is funded entirely through donations from the public, philanthropic grants and a small amount (approximately 5%) from the Victorian Government. 

Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project supports people who are seeking asylum and living in the community whilst their claim is being processed. Historically, most of the Asylum Seeker Project’s clients have come to Australia by plane, and these clients have always been allowed to live in the community.

The Project provides asylum seekers with professional case work support, food and accommodation, and also gives clients an allowance of $33 a week.

For many, Helga explains, that’s their total income.

“Think about the last time you spent $33 and how quickly it slips through your fingers when you’ve got access to other things,” Helga says. “For these people, they have nothing.”

As the new CEO of an organisation that is swelling in size, Helga’s to-do list is extensive.  

Helga would like for the Project to build its capacity to extend the range of services it can offer. She also wants the Project to continue its advocacy on behalf of vulnerable asylum seekers- including advocating for an end to mandatory detention.

“What I’d really like for us is to not exist,” Helga says, explaining that in her ideal world the government would provide these basic services.  “But, in the interim…I’d like to be part of helping create a fairer and more compassionate approach to asylum seekers.”

As well as overseeing the visionary aspects of the organisation, Helga has several less exciting tasks to organise, such as establishing a procedural plan.

Yet despite the challenges involved in her job, Helga, a lawyer who has previously worked for the trade union movement, is passionate about working in the not-for-profit sector. Helga laughs as she explains how she negotiated her contract for the job.

“I managed to negotiate myself a job where I have more responsibility working longer, harder smarter for less money.”

As far as LV is concerned, Helga talks about the incredible contacts she has made by being an LV Alumnus; contacts she calls on constantly. Tim Lightfoot (WCLP ’09), for example, is the Chair of the Project’s Board.

In her line of work, when fundraising is an important part of the job, having sound contacts certainly helps.

“For me, who went to a public school and didn’t necessarily come up through the corporate world, I don’t have an old school tie I can call on. But the Williamson Community Leadership Program (WCLP) network is a bit of my old school tie now,” Helga says.

“I can ring people cold and say ‘Hi, I’m a Williamson Alumni and so are you- let’s have a chat.’”

If you would like to donate to the work of Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project you can do so online here.