While the Good Samaritan Sisters in Pakenham, Victoria say they’re helping their African friends with many aspects of life in Australia, they’re also learning a great deal from them.
BY Debra Vermeer*
Good Samaritan Sister Teresa Lanigan was driving down a street in the outer Melbourne suburb of Pakenham when she first saw an African teenager walking along. Many would have driven straight past, but Teresa slowed down the car, called out ‘hello’ and began talking with him.
It was to be the beginning of a rich ministry with African refugees for Teresa and her two companions in community, Sisters Monica McKenzie and Patricia Hickey.
“His name was Ruben** and he looked seven foot tall to me,” Teresa recalls. “I found out he was going to the high school and I asked him a few questions about how he was getting on and so forth.
“Then I came home and I said ‘Guess what? I saw the first African up the street in Pakenham’. And we said well, we’d better do something to keep an eye on this and see what they need.”
The sisters found out that Ruben, who arrived in Australia as a refugee from war-torn Sudan, was going off to school each morning with only a glass of milk, and no breakfast.
“So, Patricia and Monica taught him how to cook some things, especially porridge,” Teresa says. “And now there are a few of the Sudanese families that cook porridge because he passed the skills on to them and they all love it.
“As time went on, we encouraged him to complete Year 12. He got his VCE and now he’s nursing. So he’s done pretty well, and Ruben now has three extra Australian grandmas – that’s what he calls us.”
That chance meeting with Ruben opened up a whole new ministry, not only for the three sisters, but for the local parish and members of the broader community, in responding to the needs of the refugees who were trying to resettle in Australia with very little in the way of on-the-ground support.
But Teresa says she has come to realise that it is often in circumstances of chance that we have an opportunity to help others in their need. In fact, the parable of the Good Samaritan says so explicitly when it talks of the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan coming upon the injured man “by chance” (Luke 10:31), an insight into the Scripture given to them by biblical scholar and Good Samaritan Sister, Verna Holyhead (RIP).
After meeting Ruben, the sisters decided to take a proactive approach to a rumour that Pakenham would be receiving up to 2,000 Sudanese refugees.
They wrote to the local parish council of St Patrick’s, asking them to get involved in offering supportive and compassionate outreach to the refugee community.
“We haven’t ended up with 2,000 refugees at all,” says Monica. “But our numbers increased and that is why we felt we had to be proactive.
“And the support that we have had from the parish and from families within the parish has been outstanding. One family, a husband and wife, actually paid for a solicitor to help a family in need at one stage. They took it on themselves to do that. And the parish priest has been extraordinarily generous in what he has done. And the schools, especially the school principals, have been tremendous.”
The sisters each bring to their new ministry a rich professional and pastoral background which has been crucial to meeting the needs of the refugees they meet.
Throughout her life as a Sister of the Good Samaritan, Teresa has worked in schools, in social work and as a pastoral associate, while Patricia has worked in education, with a special interest in children with disability, and retired just this year from her job with the Catholic Education Office in Sale. Monica’s background is in schools, in tertiary education and in chaplaincy.
According to Patricia, most of what they do for the African refugee community is to respond to very simple needs.
“It’s very ordinary things really,” she says. “Like making sure the children have school uniforms and lunches and books and can get to the school camps.
“Because of my background with the Catholic Education Office, I am invited to various meetings at the schools, especially for challenging students. But it’s the basic things – transport, taking parents to secondary school information meetings, helping as they choose subjects for next year, taking students to soccer training and sport, that kind of thing.”
Patricia says one of the requests that came to her last term was to teach the mothers how to make healthy lunches.
“So I organised a Saturday afternoon session with a mother from a neighbouring parish who is very much into that,” she says. “And she taught them how to make pizza scrolls and banana muffins, and we made healthy sandwiches and cut up fruit into small pieces that children are more likely to eat. Very, very simple things, but the simple things are very important in living your life.”
Teresa’s background enables her to help the refugees make sense of the Australian bureaucracy and to advocate on their behalf with utilities companies.
“I’ve sat beside several families negotiating with utilities companies,” she says. “These families had no idea that, if they were on Centrelink, they were entitled to concessions for gas and electricity etc. It’s just very basic stuff, but it’s information they’re unaware of. And if they’ve been badly done by, I say to the utilities companies, ‘Now I think you could give these people a greater concession,’ and they actually do!”
Patricia has also utilised her professional skills to help Solomon**, a young Sudanese fellow who has epilepsy and an intellectual disability. Apart from organising appropriate medical care, and overseeing the safe use of his medication, she arranged for him to be accepted into a school for special needs. He’s now engaged in tertiary studies.
“All of these things take a long time and a lot of explaining, because some of the Sudanese mums might speak four languages, but because they’ve had no education, they’re not literate in any of them,” she says.
“But this is not true of them all. Many Sudanese have tertiary qualifications but cannot find appropriate work. This causes them to feel distressed and discouraged and the loss of dignity when they cannot support their families.
“To listen to their stories is extraordinary. One lady, Sarah**, talks about how her husband was beaten because the soldiers wanted money and he didn’t have any. I think he died the next day or two days later, and Sarah fled with her children with what they stood up in. She describes scooping water from the ground to drink and eating grass, just to stay alive. I’m sure it wasn’t clean water either. It really deepens one’s compassion for their struggles. They are valiant women.
“And after all they’ve been through, they trust us and that trust really impacts on our lives. But there are so many other people out there who are Good Samaritans too. Not professed in the Congregation as we are, but there are lots of people who help us in different ways. So it connects us to people and that also enriches our lives.”
The sisters say that while they are helping their African friends with many aspects of life in Australia, they are also learning a great deal from them.
“We do respect the fact that we are the people who are learning,” says Monica. “We have learned so much from them and we do respect their traditions and the wishes of the elders.”
Monica, who, at 85, accompanies the refugees to court when necessary and helps them obtain legal assistance and deals with immigration and citizenship paperwork, among other things, says the relationships that are formed often bring with them unexpected moments of grace.
“I was helping a young woman who’s in litigation with her former partner,” she says. “She was to have a baby and there was nobody to take her to hospital. She asked me to take her and when I asked her if she wanted me to stay with her, she said ‘Yes please’. And so I had my first birthing experience too! That was a privilege. I didn’t plan that, but it’s a question of the response to the need.
“As you travel down the road as a Good Samaritan you come across the need. You can cross to the other side of the road and you can close your ears and you can close your eyes or you can do something about it. I’m an old lady now, but I can manage and I think that’s the challenge. If you still walk along the road, then you’re still going to come across the fellow who needs your help.
“And to enter into that sacred place of suffering is somehow to enter into the passion of Christ in a new way. It’s a great privilege.”
Monica says she looks at herself as being “a rusty old pipe”.
“And the good water that the Lord wants to come to these people is flowing through because that’s the way God works,” she says. “He works through people. And I think if the rusty old pipe is still able to give the life-giving water and the good news, that’s what it’s about. It’s not the messenger. It’s the message – that these people are loved by God, have dignity and are of value and they have as much right to the good things of life as each of us has.”
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.
**name changed for privacy reasons