NOW located in one of Melbourne’s liveliest suburbs, The Couch offers social support, cross-cultural engagement and learning opportunities for Melbourne’s international student community. What prompted the move, and what will its future hold? Clara Ng reports.
On April 4, more than a hundred attendees gathered at 324 Drummond St, Carlton, to launch The Couch’s new space. Smiling volunteers greeted newcomers and regulars at the door – a warm welcome into a warmly-lit hall filled with a festive atmosphere and amusing chatter.
Since 2008, The Couch has been offering a safe and supportive space for international students in Melbourne to socialise and seek help when needed. It connects students to services such as housing, counselling and legal aid, especially where seeking assistance can be daunting for a newcomer in the city.
Why the move?
[It wasn’t a good idea to have] international students side by side with one of the most vulnerable people in the community.”- Lord Mayor Robert Doyle
The Couch was previously based at 69 Bourke St, in the Hamodava Café run by The Salvation Army. The drop-in centre provides free soup-kitchen style meals for the homeless – a service that was seeing an increasing number of hungry students, some of whom were underpaid and in debt.
In his opening speech at The Couch on Monday, City of Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said it wasn’t a good idea to have “international students side by side with one of the most vulnerable people in the community”.
“Moving [international students] here – to a home in the centre of Melbourne’s educational precinct – is a stroke of genius,” Doyle said.
The Couch also facilitates cultural exchange through activities such as movie nights, language lessons and music. They recently held an African Cultural Night that featured live music, dance, comedy, spoken poetry and ethnic cuisine.
Will the new location affect the services provided?
“We hope not,” Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle said. If anything, he expects services will improve as student numbers grow in a neighbourhood known for its trendy cafe culture and vibrant arts scene.
“We hope to make use of nearby spaces, such as La Mama Theatre, and get restaurants to help with the catering,” Major Nottle said.
At the heart of The Couch is manager Peter Hichaaba.
“Now we can see this as a permanent space, where we can feel at home and call our own, there’s more freedom,” he said.
“Come and talk to us… We can’t solve all your troubles, but we can help in every other way.” – Peter Hichaaba
Mr Hichaaba, who has been overseeing the day to day operations of The Couch for the past six years, has never been tired of helping new people from diverse backgrounds with different needs.
He emphasised the importance of a comfortable, safe refuge for those who might need it.
Come and talk to us,” Hichaaba said. “We can’t solve all your troubles, but we can help in every other way.”
For Robin, an international student and volunteer at The Couch, the launch of the new space evoked a sense of bittersweet nostalgia.
Preparing to return to his home country, Robin hoped he wouldn’t “miss this place too much”.
“We are like a family – you meet such great people every time you’re here. It’s going to be hard to leave,” Robin said.
One way or another, Robin’s experience is indicative of the multicultural Melbourne that embraces and welcomes diversity.
In the words of the Lord Mayor, “We are all immigrants to this very young country – 220 nationalities, 260 languages, 105 different faiths, but one Melbourne. It’s [in] such places that let you find the friendship that’s the hallmark of our city”.
The Couch is open Monday to Thursday from 5pm to 9pm. You can find it at 324 Drummond Street, Carlton. If you’d like to volunteer, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or head over to fill in an application form.