June 2017

Celebrating refugees and those who support them

To mark Refugee Week, which this year runs from June 18-24, The Good Oil caught up with four Good Samaritan Sisters to hear about their experience supporting refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.

BY Stephanie Thomas

It was about three years ago when Sister Marie O’Connor first started visiting asylum seekers at Villawood Detention Centre in western Sydney. Nearly every week since then, Marie has met up with a small group of like-minded people who together visit and offer support to asylum seekers who are detained at Villawood and waiting for their refugee claims to be assessed.

Even though they are regular visitors at Villawood, Marie and her group are put through the same rigorous security screening process each week: they queue up; they fill out application forms; they, and any goods brought inside, including Marie’s home-baked biscuits she brings to share with the “detainees”, are X-rayed; they are given security wrist-bands to wear; and recently, they have also been marked with an invisible pen.

“The security is crazy!” exclaims Marie.

“Once we’ve finished [visiting people on] one side [of the centre] we have to come back out and go through the security procedure again for the other side.”

But for Marie the process is worth it. Once inside, she and her group connect with those asylum seekers who are keen to meet up. They share food, a hot drink and conversation.

“Some of them don’t always come out of their quarters,” says Marie.

“We meet in a big recreation area where there are facilities for a cup of tea and chairs and tables. We just sit around and chat really, but occasionally we get on to something a little bit more in-depth.”

Marie sees her visits to Villawood, which last about three hours, as opportunities to offer asylum seekers friendship and support.

“It’s an assurance that they are not alone,” she says.

“I think that’s probably the most significant part of the witness of our visiting – that there’s somebody out there who cares about their situation. I think that’s very much the heart of it.”

Most of the asylum seekers Marie visits are young Tamil men from Sri Lanka and many have been in detention a long time. Some of the men Marie met when she began visiting three years ago are still in detention.

“You sort of grieve for the lost youth and the lost opportunity,” she says.

For as long as she is able Marie will continue her visits to Villawood (she recently began using a walking frame to get around), but she hopes there will be a time when there isn’t a need for such visits.

Sister Pam Grey’s association with refugees goes back to the 1990s when she was living in Sydney and teaching English classes at Ultimo and Wetherill Park TAFE Colleges. However, her first student was a neighbour in Auburn.

“She and her husband and son had fled persecution in Ethiopia. We sat under an old tree in the backyard and shared stories and cups of tea,” says Pam.

“My TAFE students were refugees from Uruguay, Ecuador, North Vietnam, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. I also taught two Tibetan Buddhist monks who sat crossed-legged on their chairs and helped create a peaceful mood amongst us!”

In recent years Pam has been volunteering as a tutor with the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project and the Adult Migrant Education Service in Melbourne. This year she’s working with six Iraqi students who are Catholic and speak Arabic, one Sri Lankan mother, and her next door neighbour who is Muslim.

“These students are all refugees. I help with language and all kinds of resettlement issues of connecting and belonging,” explains Pam.

“I’m their Australian friend who enjoys their hospitality, their resilient hope for their young families and I especially enjoy their humour.

“One student told me that his father had been a shepherd in Iraq, so I asked him if he knew each of his sheep by name. Instead, he threw back his head and gave an amazing call – half yodel followed by a resonating ululation. When his wife and I stopped laughing, he told us that the sheep knew his voice and that’s all that mattered! He then gave us an encore.”

Pam loves her work with refugees. She says she will acknowledge Refugee Week this year by reading the Book of Tobit “to better understand a life lived in exile – and hopefully to discover anew that God is in this place and we never knew it”.

Sister Elizabeth Murray is now in her fourth year as a volunteer at the St Bakhita Centre in western Sydney, which offers a range of education and support services for Sudanese refugees.

Each week she spends one day at the centre, mostly helping out as an English language teacher, but responds to the needs as they arise – “I fill in wherever I’m needed” – which sometimes includes minding children so that the mothers can focus on their classes.

Elizabeth’s expertise and experience as a music teacher has also been put to excellent use at the centre. Before English classes begin on Fridays, she leads a half-hour singing session for anyone who is interested. Such has been the interest that over time a small choir formed.

“They call themselves the Sudanese Ladies Choir,” says Elizabeth, “and what they want to do is learn Christian songs in English.”

Last year the group had its first performance, singing for residents at St Catherine’s aged care facility in Eastwood, which Elizabeth says was “a great success”.

“Their program was mostly of religious songs in English – their choice – plus, of course, a couple in their own language,” explains Elizabeth.

The group is now preparing for another performance, this time at an aged care hostel in Blacktown.

As a result of her connection with those who come to the centre, Elizabeth has also been invited to visit individuals and families in their homes. There she mostly provides English language support, but at the moment she is also teaching a woman the keyboard.

“Wherever I can support and help these people I’ll do it, no matter how far I need to travel,” she says.

Elizabeth admits that teaching English as a second language to adults can be challenging, especially with those who have never been to school. But the experience of being with her students “enriches” her and gives her “joy and life”.

“They’re grateful for whatever you do for them,” she says.

“There’s a joy about them and a simplicity that bowls you over at times. It makes you question some of our Western attitudes and ways of doing things.”

In addition to her work with Sudanese refugees, Elizabeth also volunteers as an English language teacher with asylum seekers at Arrupe Place, a drop-in centre in Parramatta established by Jesuit Refugee Service in collaboration with a number of other partners, including the Good Samaritan Sisters.

“It is a privilege to share part of these people’s lives through the teaching of English, and I’m definitely the one who ends up being the richer for it,” she says.

After 15 years ministering in Timor Leste, Sister Rita Hayes returned to Australia in 2015, but not, it seems, to slow down and enjoy a well-earned retirement. It didn’t take long for the then 76-year-old to work out how she wanted to focus her energies.

“As a Good Samaritan, at this particular point in history, asylum seekers and refugees are my neighbours,” Rita says.

For more than a year now, Rita has been volunteering with the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project (BASP) in Melbourne.

“I got involved because BASP is giving practical support to people who are in great need and who are being treated in the most appalling manner by the Australian Government,” she says.

Initially Rita was supporting asylum seekers and refugees living in accommodation provided by the project, but now she works three days a week in the BASP office where she is involved in various education and advocacy initiatives.

“Sometimes I provide templates of letters on various issues for the use of BASP supporters and organise a letter-writing day at BASP four times a month. On behalf of BASP I frequently write to various politicians challenging or supporting their stance on issues affecting refugees,” she explains.

As well as this work, Rita is also a community educator with the Refugee Council of Australia, the national umbrella body for refugees and the organisations and individuals who support them. In this role she accompanies refugees who have been invited into schools to tell their story to students.

“My role is a supportive one for the refugee and to provide general education on refugees in order to promote social cohesion,” she says.

Rita says connecting with asylum seekers and refugees has “enriched” her “greatly”.

“I am in awe at what they have gone through and their resilience. They have given me new insights into the graciousness of humanity by their thoughtfulness for others; their dignity even under the most degrading circumstances; their reluctance to accept charity even when they are in dire need but instead wanting to give something back,” she says.

“They embody deep love for family, respect for elders and courtesy towards all.”

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.