Tiff is packing donated clothing at a not-for-profit in Melbourne that supports refugees and asylum seekers.
The service is based in the city’s west, and has helped Tiff and thousands like him through extreme hardship during the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis.
“Without services like West Welcome Wagon, I would not be here. I would not have put food on my table, or have clothing, a bed to sleep on. Maybe I would be sleeping on the street.”
Tiff knows a thing or two about hardship. Growing up in a conservative and mainly Muslim area in Malaysia’s east, the 44-year-old has had a long struggle to find acceptance.
“LGBTQI+ people in Malaysia, we don’t have much freedom. You cannot explore your identity and your gender,” he says.
Tiff is thankful for support in Australia. Source: SBS News / Tim Stevens
“I had to hide for 30 years, not even sharing with my family or friends because this issue is too sensitive.
“Our culture in Malaysia is traditional and a little bit conservative, so we cannot blame them. We just need to accept and support each other as a family.”
However, Tiff says many in Malaysia’s LGBTIQ+ community still live in fear of discovery.
“It is too dangerous for people like me to live there. We could be killed or get arrested and fined by the police.”
The Malaysian government has faced sustained criticism over its treatment of LGBTIQ+ people.
In a report released last year, said the Malaysian government “relies on the force of the law to prohibit expression and conduct that fall outside of a heterosexual, cisgender norm”.
“It is one of only a handful of countries that explicitly makes gender nonconformity a criminal offence,” the report said.
“Malaysia also criminalises consensual same-sex conduct at both the federal and state levels.”
According to Tiff, many in Malaysia’s LGBTIQ+ community fear violence from both state authorities and civilians.
Tiff is proud to have transitioned as a man in Australia, and says he is finally living as himself.
Tiff said services like West Welcome Wagon helped him survive. Source: SBS News / Tim Stevens
“In Australia, I have the freedom and opportunity to be who I want to be. And that is why I am here.
“Doctors gave me good advice, here. There are good health care facilities, to get hormones, full body check-ups and blood tests by endocrinology specialists. They will keep checking on me every month.”
But Tiff describes the transition since childhood as a “long journey with many hardships”.
“Growing up in Malaysia, I was a tomboy. I always played with my brothers and male friends, and we went fishing and hiking, or played sport.
Tiff grew up in a “very traditional” family in Malaysia. Source: Supplied / Tiff
“I knew as a little kid that I wanted to change my gender. I felt different because inside my body was a man’s body, not a female body.
“But I cannot talk about this with my family because they are very traditional, and I have to respect that.”
Tiff is among 200 registered volunteers helping to keep the wheels turning at West Welcome Wagon, which was set up in 2013 to support asylum seekers and refugees.
“In our 10 years of operation, we have supported more than 2,100 households, delivering more than 42,000 items,” says CEO Colette McInerney.
“Many recipients are refugees who have experienced unimaginable trauma, forcing them to make the heartbreaking decision to flee their home country.”
West Welcome Wagon CEO Colette McInerney. Source: SBS News / Tim Stevens
However, McInerney says this year, like many charities and not-for-profits in Australia, a shortage of donated goods has left West Welcome Wagon struggling to meet soaring requests for help.
“Demand has increased by 60 per cent in July alone, compared with the same time last year,” she says.
“A lot of that is driven by people newly arrived from Myanmar. So 60 new families added to our database means we are servicing 760 active households.
“The more households we have, the more challenging it is to find enough donations to support these refugee families.”
It’s a nationwide issue, and many charities are feeling the pinch.
McInerney says while donations of clothing and white goods have fallen, operating costs continue to rise.
“So we are stuck in the middle of that sandwich. It costs $500,000 each year to run, including higher costs this year for warehouse rent, fuel, insurance, utilities and paid staff.
“Yet today we have an empty section of the warehouse where usually we have our fridges.
“As soon as they come in, they go out. So yes, it is getting more difficult.”
The federal government has lifted the refugee intake this year to 20,000, responding to a global humanitarian crisis – with 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide.
Sue Woodward AM, commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission. Source: Supplied / Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission
Sue Woodward, commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, says despite a small increase in gifts and bequests last financial year, the new intake will put pressure on many already strained services.
“They need both funding and, in some cases, they need the material goods to distribute, and then they need the staff and the administration support to deliver their services.
“So, it can be a very complex situation … if any part of that equation declines.
“If your demands and your expenses are skyrocketing, very small charities often feel the crunch because they don’t necessarily have reserves to draw on.
“And if you are entirely volunteer-run and the number of volunteers is under pressure and reducing, then you can also feel that pressure of how you will deliver those services.”
West Welcome Wagon is exploring new ways to bring in revenue, such as starting a social enterprise to earn income from unwanted goods. Many donated items are already recycled.
“We have an arrangement with a local laundromat here in Sunshine and if a doona is stained or ripped, they will wash it for free and pass it on to a homeless shelter.
“We also have a partnership with a local textile recycler.”
Doing their bit for the environment has attracted a $191,000 grant from Sustainability Victoria.
“In the last financial year alone, 12,000 goods were diverted from landfill. And that is a huge achievement,” says Sustainability Victoria interim CEO Matt Genever.
Matt Genever, interim CEO at Sustainability Victoria. Source: SBS News / Tim Stevens
“And while that is fantastic at a local level here in Melbourne, there are opportunities for these models to be scaled all across Australia.”
Even so, McInerney says West Welcome Wagon faces an uncertain future and more support is crucial.
“The grant concludes in May next year, and we have no other grant to replace it.
“With the ongoing cost of living pressures, and an increase in refugee arrivals, it is critical that we get funding to continue the work that we are doing.”
“West Welcome Wagon is my home,” Tiff says. “It is a safe space and offers generous kind heart to asylum seekers and refugees.
“Whether they come from Cambodia or Myanmar, the more people who know about this, the more help they can get.”