February 2015

A thirst for life and for justice

Good Samaritan Oblate Pauline Roach is a woman with a thirst for life and for justice, and she says it all started with the photo of an African girl on the wall of her Year 4 classroom.

BY Debra Vermeer

Good Samaritan Oblate Pauline Roach is a woman with a thirst for life and for justice – whether it’s riding a motorbike to Perth in her youth, hitch-hiking around the world, or working with others to help refugees to find their feet in Australia – and she says it all started with the photo of an African girl on the wall of her Year 4 classroom.

Pauline was born in Armidale, one of six children, but grew up in Wollongong, starting school at the Little Flower School in Figtree, with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, and then with the Sisters of St Joseph at St Joseph’s School, Bulli and Holy Cross College.

“One of the most important impacts for me as a kid was a photo on the wall of a child from Africa,” she says.

“I can remember it so clearly. I would sit at my desk staring at this photo and I can remember thinking: ‘when I grow up I’m going there’.

“And in 1982 I did get to Africa and I truly think that the reason I’m involved with social justice issues is because of that photo and the world it represented. And it’s that faith foundation of sharing. It’s something that comes back to me continually, that sense of: ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. We’re all in this together.”

Pauline left school at 15 and saved the money to take up nursing training at Wollongong Hospital, followed by midwifery training at the Royal Hospital for Women in Melbourne.

She remembers her time in Melbourne as fun and carefree.

“I’ve never had so many parties in my life,” she laughs.

It was also in this period that she rode her motorbike to Perth, via Tasmania.

“Back in those days, it was 770 miles of dirt road,” she says. “And it rained on the Nullabor.”

After completing the midwifery training, Pauline and her nursing friend Jenny packed up and travelled around Australia for a couple of years, this time in a four-wheel-drive, working along the way, including a wet season at Cairns Base Hospital.

Her work there saw her fly into a number of Aboriginal reserves, an experience she has never forgotten.

“It brought home for me in a very personal way, for the first time, the social inequities in these communities, particularly the health inequities. It was just systemic and it was very confronting,” Pauline says.

“It reinforced for me the helplessness of the individual to try and make a correction in their circumstances and showed me that unless you belong to a political party or to a community organisation that works for the common good, it is almost impossible to achieve change.

“It instilled in me the need for us as a community to say ‘this is not good enough!’ Because without that community action, it will just continue.”

Pauline’s first trip overseas was a backpacking, hitchhiking odyssey through Asia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and then across Europe to England. She worked in hospitals in London before hitchhiking through Ireland, spending a ski season in Switzerland and then working for a while in Scotland.

“After that I hitched through Europe again and then set off to the Middle East,” Pauline says. “I’d always been interested in the Middle East. It’s the home of the big three religions and I wanted to experience Islamic culture.

“It was wonderful. And I have to say that the best hospitality I ever received in the world was in the Old Town of Cairo, from people living under sheets. Their poverty was beyond belief, but if I’d be buying a glass of tea or something, people would rush to say, ‘I’ll buy this for you’.”

Pauline’s travels took her to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Sudan and Israel before she ran out of money and returned home to work at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital for 16 months. But it wasn’t long before she headed back overseas, working on a Kibbutz in Israel, catching the Trans-Siberian train across the USSR, and then hitching from Cairo to Cape Town.

In South Africa, Tanzania, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, Pauline once again saw people living not only in terrible poverty, but also, in the days of South Africa’s Apartheid regime, people living with systemic inequality.

“In 1982, I wanted to go to Soweto and I went up to an African worker at the railway station to ask him about a train and he didn’t talk to me. He couldn’t. He just walked away. That incident will probably stay with me forever. That people aren’t treated as equal is just revolting to me.”

Upon her return to Australia, Pauline worked in the neonatal intensive care unit of Paddington Women’s Hospital for a time, before deciding to leave nursing and become a public servant.

Her first appointments were with the NSW Department of Housing, and with the Community Justice Centre’s Mediation Service, a part of the Attorney-General’s Department.

Having gained experience as a mediator, Pauline later took up a job with what was then the Roads and Traffic Authority, setting up its dispute resolution process.

“As a mediator, it’s important to look at the bigger picture,” she says. “People present with something, some problem, and you have to ask yourself ‘what is the real issue? What’s really going on here? Then you see what can be done to correct the situation. And when you can do that, it becomes very fulfilling work.”

Outside of work, Pauline loves long-distance cycling and her passion for justice is also evident. She is an active member of St Brigid’s Parish, Marrickville and also the Sydney Alliance, which describes itself as “a non party-political organisation, bringing together diverse community organisations, unions and religious bodies to advance the common good and achieve a fair, just and sustainable city”.

Pauline traces her work with refugees back to the Tampa asylum seeker crisis when a Norwegian commercial ship helped rescue asylum seekers from a distressed boat, but the Howard government refused permission for the ship to enter Australian waters.

“That incident had a massive impact on me,” she says.

“And around that time, I was on the parish council of St Brigid’s at Marrickville and I noticed the parish had an old school house building that was empty. So I thought to myself, ‘why aren’t we housing a refugee family in that building?’”

The priest agreed to the idea and the parish ended up hosting a refugee family from Iran.

“Since then, we’ve had several refugee families in our parish,” Pauline says.

Through that experience, Pauline started to work with the Muslim Women’s Association and also organised a public meeting at Marrickville Town Hall with refugee advocate Julian Burnside QC and refugee mental health expert, Professor Louise Newman.

One attendee at that meeting was Carmel Tebbutt, who was planning to run for the ALP in the state seat of Marrickville. Also there were representatives from the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF), who had been working at showing teachers different methods of how to teach people, such as refugees, who needed extra help to learn.

“Later, when Carmel was Education Minister, she gave the ALNF a seeding grant, and now, teachers who are doing a Masters degree are being taught at uni how to do this new way of teaching. Some of those teachers work in homework centres with refugees and they have had wonderful results,” says Pauline.

“So from that one meeting, came this concrete result. It showed me that it’s just a matter of getting the right person at the right time in the right place, and life changes.”

Pauline says the Sydney Alliance is built on a similar basis.

“It works on the principle of building relationships, rather than being a hierarchical organisation,” she says. “Really, it’s about building community.”

Underlying Pauline’s social justice activity is a love for Benedictine spirituality and the spirituality of the Good Samaritan.

“About seven or eight years ago, a couple of women got together at St Brigids to talk about Benedictine spiritualty,” she says. “I went along, and I loved it.”

Wanting to delve deeper, Pauline became first an Associate of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, and then an Oblate, in 2006.

“One of the most important things about Benedictine spirituality is the idea of hospitality,” she says. “And basically that means that if you want to get to know someone, sit down and have a cup of tea with them.”

She is also attracted to the Benedictine quality of deep listening ‘with the ear of the heart’ (RB, Prologue), and the Good Sam quality of being neighbour and of asking ‘who is my neighbour?’

“Our refugee policy in Australia is a disgrace. So much for ‘who is my neighbour’?” she says. “We are such a wealthy country and we shut people up on Manus Island and demonise them as ‘the other’. It really does just make me sick.”

But, far from feeling defeated, Pauline believes that community activism such as the Sydney Alliance can make a difference.

“Oh, absolutely. When you get a community mass together, all sorts of things can happen. It just takes one idea and people to keep pushing it. It’s just important to keep at it and take people along with you, and then, yes, you can achieve change.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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