While the future for many asylum seekers in Australia seems disturbingly bleak, a number of Good Samaritan Sisters and Oblates are doing what they can in their own neighbourhoods, offering support, friendship and hope.
Take Sister Glenys Dellamarta as an example. Each week for the past few years, Glenys has been visiting asylum seekers at the Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
During her weekly visits, Glenys participates in a special Eucharist for those at the centre, an experience she describes as “very powerful in that place”. She also spends time getting to know some of the asylum seekers, many of whom are men, but also young families. Like other visitors, Glenys brings food to share with the people she encounters; her aim is to offer a listening ear, support and friendship.
The length of time asylum seekers remain at Broadmeadows varies considerably, according to Glenys. Some of the men have been there for seven years.
“Psychologically, it’s extremely stressful because they see the people who arrived with them [leave] – some of them might go within a year, some of them might go within five years… We’ve had instances where their partners have gone five years ago and they’re still in there waiting to be cleared,” she explained.
Glenys is also supporting three families she first met in detention who now have refugee status and are living in the community.
“It’s good that you’ve got the contact after they [leave detention] because there’s another wave of new circumstances and fears that they have to face when they move into the wider community,” she said.
For Glenys, who is also the chaplain at Santa Maria College, Northcote, and has a background in teaching, it’s a pleasure to help these families as they navigate the education system and other community support services.
“I feel very privileged to go into their lives and have some small part in welcoming them into our culture,” she said.
Glenys believes her experiences with asylum seekers and refugees have enriched her life, too.
“I come away with less need for the material from being with them and more appreciation of the gift of life and the simplicity of life because I’m with them… It helps me in my religious life,” she said.
Like Glenys, Good Samaritan Oblate Kathy Moran, of Sydney, is committed to providing support and hope to people who’ve arrived in Australia as asylum seekers and refugees. For the last 20 years she has been involved in both paid and voluntary roles, and worked with organisations such as Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and the Uniting Church.
“It is… a sort of passion with me,” said Kathy.
For the most part, Kathy has been supporting refugees and asylum seekers living in the community and has been able to offer her skills and experience as both a secondary school teacher and family support worker.
Given her long involvement, Kathy has witnessed the impacts of the plethora of immigration policies implemented by successive Australian governments, some of which have caused significant harm to individuals and families.
“It’s been difficult at times to remain positive in the midst of the politics, the harsh policies and the negative public attitudes, particularly when you see the impact on human beings,” she said.
Kathy often recalls the words of a supervisor she had while working with JRS who reminded her that in the midst of very difficult situations, “All you can do sometimes is witness what you’re hearing, what you’re seeing”.
“And I’ve never forgotten that, actually, and I think I’m still witnessing,” said Kathy.
“I think we all are still witnessing what is happening in this area. And a bit of me wants to cry out ‘Well not in my name, I’m not doing this’! I’m trying to make a difference.”
For the past year Kathy has been making a difference to the lives of young refugee students in Sydney’s western suburbs. Through the Mercy Connect program, she and other volunteers provide mentoring and academic support to students as they make the often difficult transition into Australian life.
“I’m also visiting some families in the community,” said Kathy, “and they’re a mixture – some are refugees, some are asylum seekers.”
The type of support depends on the family’s particular needs, but it can include “giving them information or resources that they mightn’t know about, or supporting them emotionally, or supporting them practically with groceries and things like that. Or sometimes I teach them a bit of English because of my background”.
Both Kathy and Glenys are part of a network of about 25 Good Samaritan Sisters and Oblates who, in various ways, are supporting refugees and asylum seekers in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.
Members of the network gathered recently in Sydney for a weekend of formation, sharing and support. Speakers included Paul Power from the Refugee Council of Australia, Maha Abdo from the Muslim Women’s Association and Louise Stack from the Welcome Dinner Project.
“I particularly liked Paul Power’s presentation,” said Kathy, “because as a volunteer, one of the things I’m starved of is up-to-date information. So we got reams of that from Paul and that was great.”
Kathy also appreciated being with people who share her values, “which doesn’t always happen in the wider community”.
For Glenys, participating in the weekend has “deepened” her commitment to refugees and asylum seekers.
“It moved something in me… not necessarily to do more but be more faithful to my commitment,” she said.
“There’s a limit to what you can do, but there’s a level of commitment and faithfulness that you bring to what you do – so to be more intentional and [have] a deeper belief in it.”