March 2015

About children

In our time how can we place children front and centre of our concern? How can we make them visible, particularly if government and society seem no longer drawn to special kindness towards them, asks Good Samaritan Sister Pam Grey.

BY Pam Grey SGS

Her small hand gently slides beneath the warm feathered body of the sitting hen, cradles the smooth egg and draws it out. Into the wicker basket it goes – softly, gently.

“Ta,” whispers Grandpa’s little helper, as she steps away. The hen looks round, nods and goes on nesting.

In the 1950s, three generations of families lived on a one-acre block with cousins on the right, grandparents in the centre and my family to the left. The poultry farm provided the backdrop of earthy smells of aniseed stalks, chicken pens and pollard. The air was filled with the sounds of clucking hens and the crowing cock and the happy whistling of my grandfather.

Stability of place becomes a treasure-house for memories and questions. Inquisitive kids ask about the machete tucked into the beam in the corrugated tin shed. And discover that it had been to Borneo and back. Who planted the old apricot tree and the plum at the back? What was the story behind the old Bendigo pots that stored the water for the poultry? Could you really see the lamps on the wagons travelling along Sydney road, as you sat on the front steps and lit your pipe?

For some, imagination is cradled within stability of place and the stories it bears.

However, I suspect that many of us have met a mother with children in tow who have left everyone and everything behind to flee either persecution or family violence. They were seeking a new place to call home.

I have met young children whose imaginations are not filled with the smells of apricot blossom or the bravado of grandfathers. Their world is made of darker stuff, not yet put into words, but expressed in dreams and drawings and play – of burning boats, barbed fences, angry distorted faces and bleak, dark nights.

I have also met children at The Good Samaritan Inn, a refuge in Melbourne, who skip and jump and laugh once they see that their mothers are safe and supported.

”Only children know what they are looking for. Children press their noses against the window panes of the trains,” claims the signal-man in the story of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery.

The children at The Inn were looking for signs of relief on the faces of their mothers. They could recognise when their mothers had found rest for their souls.

From the rough, tough times of sixth century Italy we hear these astonishing words from St Benedict: “Although human nature itself is drawn to special kindness towards those times of life, that is towards the old and children, still the authority of the Rule should also provide for them”.

In our time how can we place children front and centre of our concern? How can we make them visible, particularly if government and society seem no longer drawn to special kindness towards them? What special provision do we need to make for children?

“In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” is a principle set out in the Convention of the Rights of the Child which Australia ratified in 1990. This principle is also highlighted in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s The Forgotten Children report released last month by its President, Professor Gillian Triggs.

How many of us still feel disturbed by the ferocious attack on Professor Triggs during last month’s Senate Estimates hearing? While Professor Triggs maintained her integrity throughout, others clearly did not.

However, I feel the real threat was to the report itself. It was at risk of being overlooked, even silenced.

It was The Forgotten Children inquiry that gives voice to the 800 children in mandatory closed immigration detention. These children were locked up for indefinite periods, with no pathway to protection or settlement. The “forgotten children” also included 186 children who were detained on Nauru.

Here are some examples of the children’s predicament.

  • “The numerous reported incidents of assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm involving children indicate the danger of the detention environment.”
  • “Some children of parents assessed as security risks have been detained for over two years without hope of release.”
  • “Children detained indefinitely on Nauru are suffering from extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological and developmental distress.” (The Forgotten Children, p. 13)

What kind of society would allow any child to live in danger, indefinitely, and without hope?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote: “All grown-ups were children once – although few of them remember it”. I doubt that this will hold true for the children held in detention. Their memories are already etched in their faces.

These children need cradling, nurturing, sheltering. They need a fair go, an opportunity to skip and jump and laugh. These children and their parents need to be welcomed.

While Jesus looks at us and says “unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven”, perhaps we need to bring to mind these little ones and learn how to expand our imagination and generosity of spirit and give a welcoming hand.

Pam Grey

Melbourne-based Good Samaritan Sister Pam Grey is a writer and poet. She also volunteers as a home tutor for newcomers to Australia who need language and resettlement support.

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