August 2013

Holding on to hope

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but I’m tired and I’m frustrated, and I’m struggling to find hope for a way forward regarding Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, writes Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls.

BY Sarah Puls SGS

There is so much being written and said about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, especially those who arrive by boat, that I feel at a loss as to what to write now. Among such a cacophony, what more is there to say? Amid such stories of desperation and pain, where is there room for hope?

It seems that every day the media presents us with the situation of politicians announcing more plans to turn our collective back on those who come here seeking asylum, and footage of planes landing on remote islands to deposit their sorry cargo of desperate people left on the doorstep of nations far away from Canberra.

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but I’m tired and I’m frustrated, and I’m struggling to find hope for a way forward on these issues.

For several years now, I’ve been involved in the lives of various people who have come to Australia seeking asylum. Like many, many others (some of whom have been at it since I was a child), I’ve marched in rallies, I’ve written to politicians, I’ve participated in education and advocacy, and even in the years I’ve been doing that, it seems that the situation just keeps getting darker. With the federal election fast approaching, the situation, if possible, is deteriorating further.

Our federal government and the opposition seem to be racing inexorably to the bottom of a deep pit of darkness in which good policy is equated with treating people badly… not in a hidden or surreptitious way, but openly, deliberately, purposefully.

And what is there to do in the face of that? Certainly we must lament. But after that, in conjunction with that, how can we possibly find a way forward?

Hope seems essential and yet it feels almost impossible. But as I write that, I’m reminded of the many, varied and unlikely people who have taught me about holding onto hope when it seems impossible.

When I think about hope, my mind turns quickly to the people I know who have come to Australia seeking safety and refuge. These people have taught me more about hope than I ever could have imagined. Diverse in almost every way, these people have come from many different countries, ethnicities, religions and persecuted groups. They have found their way here in many different ways too: by boat and by air; through luck, through determination, through persistence; through the kindness of strangers and loved ones.

And yet, in all this diversity, what strikes me is not always the difference, but the similarity in their capacity to hope. And it’s a hope which I find hard to fathom, because to my eyes, it can look uninformed and foolhardy, but it’s actually inspiring and amazing.

It is a hope that life will not always be like this,
a hope that the persecutions, trauma and fears of the past will one day be behind them,
a hope that the suffering, fear and hardships of the present will one day be different.
It is a hope that in the end, God-willing, their life will be just that – a life.

I don’t know what it is like to flee for my life. I don’t know what it’s like to wake each morning and wonder if I will be safe; if I will hear good news or bad, or if, like so many days, it will be just another long day in the day-after-day of waiting.

But having walked with people who know that, and walked beside people on parts of that journey, it is absolutely clear that those experiences are not ‘life’ in the way that I understand the word.

Article three of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. Everyone. Not people born in the right circumstances. Not people born in a particular country. Every human person. And, if it’s not possible in a person’s country of nationality, then it is that person’s human right to seek and enjoy protection from that persecution in another country. It’s not something we uphold because we are kind, generous and compassionate. It is a human right. For every human person.

And, of course it is not only the UN Declaration that upholds and promotes the right to life and security for every human person. It is also a fundamental standpoint of Catholic Social Teaching that every human person is made in the image and likeness of God and has dignity and worth. Every human person.

When I hear politicians talking about taking a ‘hard line’ in sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru with the explicit intent of making life miserable for individuals, in the hope of deterring other individuals who are similarly desperate, I must protest.

I believe in the unalienable dignity and worth of every human person, based on my belief that each and every one of us is made in the image and likeness of God. Each and every person is a sign and embodiment of God’s love in the world. I cannot accept a policy or practice in which human persons are used as pawns, as strategic devices. I cannot accept any policy in which a human person is ‘used’ in any way.

So, when our two major political parties espouse policies which I find abhorrent on all these grounds, when there seems so little hope of a way forward which recognises and upholds the dignity of every human person, and which responds with compassion to the stranger in our midst, what am I to do?

Personally, I look for inspiration from the many asylum seekers who I have known and walked with through situations where hope seems impossible. In the darkest and most difficult times, I have witnessed unlikely and astonishing hope. I have witnessed hope which comes from faith; faith in God under many Divine names and many systems of knowing. And I have witnessed hope which comes from a place inside a person which is so deep and fundamental as to be beyond human expression.

This is the hope which we need to hold now. It is a hope which transcends ‘reality’ and belongs to our deep inner knowing that ‘life’ is not like this. Or knowing that real life, true life, is when truth, justice and peace will prevail. That may seem impossible, and maybe it’s not realistic, but it has to be the goal, the point on the horizon toward which we journey through the wilderness.

I hope, God-willing, this will happen in my time. And I know that, until it does, I must, we must, hold onto the hope which comes from God alone.

Confused about the asylum seeker issue and would like to know more?

OR, why not come along to an evening with Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, on August 27, 7pm, at St Scholastica’s College, Glebe, Sydney? Hosted by the Good Samaritan Sisters, the event aims to separate the facts from the myths about asylum seekers and refugees.

Sarah Puls

Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls has worked as a social worker with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Western Sydney and more recently as a spiritual care practitioner and clinical pastoral supervisor at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

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