December 2018

Real people with gifts, stories and hopes

Walking with people who are seeking protection in Australia has allowed me to meet and learn from the most amazingly diverse, generous and inspiring people I’ve ever known, says Sister Sarah Puls.

BY Sarah Puls SGS

As I drove away from Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) on my last day as a caseworker, the front of the car was full of gifts of love and remembrance from people I’d ‘walked with’ over the last four years: flowers picked from a garden, a photo of Sydney, homemade traditional foods. But most importantly, my heart was full to the brim, pressed down and overflowing, with gratitude.

Walking with people who are seeking protection in Australia has allowed me to meet and learn from the most amazingly diverse, generous and inspiring people I’ve ever known. Every individual has their own story of hope and of courage, but it is also a story stained by the fear and trauma that drove them from the homes, families and communities they once knew and loved. Their stories have been spattered with the muck of Australia’s policies and their experiences of detention and forced destitution after coming to Australia. But the hardest part of the story to witness is the heavy burden of uncertainty and fear for their future that they carry through the months and years of waiting.

Their stories are not mine to tell. But I want you to know some of the ways their stories have entered into mine.

Mahdi* is a tall, physically-imposing man with a gentle presence and a tender heart. He cannot be reunited with his family and those he loves. JRS is one of the places where he connects with people who he knows genuinely care for him. He experiences a lot of physical pain and mental health problems, and I knew he would find it difficult that I was leaving JRS. He told me he was frightened that there would be no one who knows him, and that he was fearful his life would never move on – like mine was moving on. Towering over me, with tears in his eyes, he gestured for me to walk away. I offered him a hug before I left and he wrapped his arms around me, rested his face on my shoulder and sobbed.

Mahdi taught me about how to bear pain with honesty and dignity. He showed me that allowing others to see my pain might not be easy, but it can lead to healing and to comfort in bearing it.

At the moment, Mahdi is not allowed to apply for refugee status or a permanent visa. He has no hope of being reunited with his loved ones, and he often faces the distressing question of whether the pain of living is worthwhile. His capacity to hang on to hope in those circumstances makes me feel humbled to know a man of such great courage and strength.

I met Ziya* and her children in 2015 and have witnessed them struggle as their application for a permanent visa, stuck in a massive backlog at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, has remained unresolved. In the time I walked with them it was good to be able to offer support when they needed to leave an unsafe living situation. I had helped Ziya’s daughter to enrol in school and get medical care, and JRS was able to support them so they didn’t become homeless when their support payments were suddenly cut due to changing government policy.

Those practical supports were invaluable, Ziya told me when she was saying goodbye. She also said that I had been like a sister to her: “You know me, you know my heart”. And that was what she was most grateful for.

Ziya taught me about having patience with myself when I’m feeling scared – and about the fierce courage that lives quietly behind fear. She taught me to see that strength and vulnerability are interwoven, and that friendship can bring healing and hope in dark times. I’m honoured to know a woman of such grace and determination.

Abdo* came to Australia seeking safety. He was transferred to Manus Island and later had to return to Australia for medical treatment. It was some time after his return that I met him, and when I did, I was so shocked and outraged at the violence he had experienced at the hands of the Australian government, that I struggled to focus on the needs he was expressing. I was overwhelmed with anger that he had suffered so much; yet he remained determined to focus on his future.

Every few months Abdo would drop in at JRS just to say “hi” and see if we had any news of hope – that maybe someday, he and others in similar situations could apply for a permanent visa. When I let him know I was leaving JRS, he came just to say “goodbye”. I thanked him for the time we had shared and for his trust. His face became very serious as he asked: “My sister… please, remember us”.

He was asking me to remember him, and others in similar situations, but mostly his concern is for the hundreds of people who were transferred to offshore places in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Abdo had told me before that he felt very lucky to have been transferred to Australia, but he worried all the time about the men who were left behind.

Hearing the stories of Abdo, and the other men, women and children who were abused in detention centres for the sake of political games and spurious ideas of “stopping boats” has torn my heart open and reshaped it. I have learned from them that courage persists beyond what we imagine possible and that the human spirit is a phenomenal thing. I’ve learned about the deep damage of feeling forsaken and forgotten. And I’ve witnessed the power of being seen and known – and the way that hope can grow in that space.

When I started working in 2011 as a caseworker with people seeking asylum, I saw the people I supported move through the process – from arrival in Australia, through first decisions and sometimes appeals, and then through to their permanent visa granted within a period of six to 18 months.

In 2018 the process has slowed – almost to a stop. People’s lives are stalled for years-upon-years without resolution. In the time I worked with JRS, we saw few people granted permanent visas. With rare exceptions, it has been a ministry of walking with people through extended waiting, with little information about why, or for how long the wait would go on. The system is broken. The people whose lives are being beaten and discarded are often prevented from speaking because they’re fearful of the impact it may have on their future.

During Advent, this season of waiting, we wait as a community with hope that is filled with joy and anticipation for Emmanuel, God-with-us, whose coming is sure and certain. But for those who are seeking safety, their wait for a visa that will allow them to build a future is not filled with hopeful expectation. They wait in fear and in pain which can be an overwhelming burden to carry, especially when a person feels, or is, alone in bearing that burden. I have had the privilege of walking beside some people carrying such burdens and I’ve heard from them some of the things that help them to hold onto hope.

They’ve told me how much it means to know that services like JRS walk with and support them. When they read positive stories in the media or when people smile and are kind in the community it lifts their spirits. They’ve told me how they draw hope from seeing Australian people who protest for their rights and try to convince our government to do better. They’ve often asked to be remembered in prayer. But the most common request is simply to be remembered – as real people with gifts, stories and hopes.

Through this Advent season and the year to come, it’s my prayer that we all grow as people of hope, sharing our lives and coming to know God-with-us in all those we meet.

* Name has been changed.

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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