It’s just over 12 months since the first group of asylum seekers was transferred from the overcrowded detention facility at Christmas Island to the remote mining town of Leonora, 830 kilometres north-east of Perth in Western Australia.
While the issue of asylum seekers in Australia continues to dominate our media mostly in negative terms, for Good Samaritan Sister Annette Dever, there is a good news story to be told about Leonora’s asylum seeker experience.
Speaking to The Good Oil recently, Annette, a parish pastoral worker since 2003 in the communities of Leonora, Laverton and Leinster, said the asylum seekers – mostly family groups and single women from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran – live in good conditions at the Leonora detention facility and are supported in a caring manner by the staff.
She also said the interaction of asylum seekers with local people and their participation in community events – accompanied by detention centre staff – had been beneficial.
Annette admitted that initially there were some negative reactions from the local community about the asylum seekers, but these were largely exaggerated in the media.
“It was only first impressions because [the local people] didn’t know [the asylum seekers] were coming,” she said.
“Once they got used to [the idea] and realised what it was all about, it didn’t make any difference to the town. They accepted it.”
Annette believes the presence of the asylum seekers in Leonora has been a mutually enriching experience for all concerned.
“They are such beautiful people and just having been here has made a difference. Whether [local] people realise it or not, [the asylum seekers] are a gift to the town, and the [local] people are a gift to them because they are struggling; they don’t understand the language, they don’t understand the culture,” she explained.
Not long after their arrival in June 2010, Annette was asked to lead regular prayer services at the detention centre for the Christian asylum seekers. She said there was a “tremendous response” to the first service.
“There would have been 100 people. I originally thought it was probably curiosity… but they were all so very genuinely asking for God’s help.
“After the liturgy, even though we’d had blessings and prayers and hymns and readings, many of them came up to me for a blessing. That touched me so deeply because here they were desperately asking for God’s mercy and blessings and care,” she said.
In the weeks that followed, about 40 to 60 asylum seekers continued to attend the prayer services which detention centre staff described as “morale-boosting” experiences.
So appreciated were these services, that in February this year, Annette was asked if the asylum seekers could attend the weekly services at Leonora’s Sacred Heart Church.
“We’ve only got a very small community here. Each Sunday we now have a beautiful church-full and the singing is so beautiful,” she said.
“The sincerity of the people and their respectfulness and gratitude is overwhelming.”
Sara, one of the asylum seekers who recently left the detention centre, presented the church community with a few paintings she had created. Some of the Sri Lankans also made woollen door hangings.
“It’s just so beautiful that they wanted to be part of the community; that they would bring something to contribute to the community.”
This is Annette’s first experience of working closely with asylum seekers. “It’s been a great privilege. I’ve been blessed. I’ve learnt so much,” she said.
While Annette recognises the global displacement of people is a complex policy issue, she said, “I would certainly like these people to be treated as human beings and treated with respect”.
Refugee and Migrant Sunday will be celebrated on August 28. Find out more information at www.acmro.catholic.org.au