August 2018

The flickering candle

I am in awe of the human capacity to survive, let alone the Christian capacity to forgive. Hope is stirring, writes Sister Elizabeth Murray.

BY Elizabeth Murray SGS

One person in the world every three seconds becomes displaced? Really?

Yes, that is fact, according to Sister Brigid Arthur from the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project in Melbourne.

So, to the already staggering figure of 68.5 million displaced persons in the world, another three have been added since I began typing this paragraph! How many more by the time you’ve finished reading this page? By the end of this day? And this is happening 24 hours a day, every day!

I am overwhelmed by such a statistic. It seems too big to tackle. What can one person do in the face of an issue of such magnitude?

Yet, I remind myself, it was for this very reason I attended a weekend-long gathering recently in Sydney organised by the Good Samaritan Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support Network. To be informed, and to gather with like-minded people on such big issues as this, is essential for me if I am to find a way forward.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Apart from hearing alarming facts and figures, Brigid gave us practical ways in which we can help – individually and collectively. Keeping ourselves informed, writing letters to parliamentarians (actually with pen and paper to be more effective) and phoning their offices, joining existing groups to protest (for example, Grandmothers Against the Detention of Refugee Children), and volunteering are key ways our voices can count.

I’m in!

So, what am I to object to?

Top of Brigid’s list is mandatory detention (which was introduced in Australia 25 years ago). As a cruel and inhumane system, designed to make people suffer, it must go! It achieves nothing – not even the deterrence it is designed to achieve!

Likewise, Temporary Protection and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas should be discontinued. Keeping people ‘in limbo’ – without permanency or the possibility of family reunion – is simply ongoing punishment.

As the weekend unfolded, I felt privileged to hear two gripping, first-hand accounts of life as a refugee.

Imagine yourself running for your life as a five-year-old, with your seven-year-old brother and your mother carrying a nine-month-old baby! Running for miles from your home in Burundi, across the Tanzanian border to a refugee camp.

I certainly can’t.

But this was Passionist Father Erick Niyiragira’s experience. I was deeply moved by his story, spoken so humbly and with not the slightest hint of bitterness or self-pity. I could not help but admire his forgiveness of those responsible for the family’s plight.

And he had much to forgive, as his entire boyhood – from the age of 5 to 17 – was spent in that refugee camp. Twelve years of hardship before the family was finally offered refuge, thankfully here in Australia.

I am in awe of the human capacity to survive, let alone the Christian capacity to forgive.

Hope is stirring.

Another story that moved me was that of Anna Dimo, a refugee from South Sudan. Colourfully dressed in African attire, Anna both enchanted and inspired with her story of courage, resilience, and preparedness to go to prison rather than deny her Catholic beliefs.

Today Anna is the dynamic pastoral leader of the Sudanese Catholic Community in Sydney, and directs the St Bakhita Centre at Homebush West. There, refugees come for English, sewing, computer, Bible, and citizenship classes, as well as much-needed companionship and help with negotiating ‘the system’ when needed. Truly a wonderful service to her community, and made possible by dozens of volunteers.

Having been one of those volunteers now for four years, I can vouch for the good that is done at Bakhita to assist Sudanese refugees with life here in Australia and to build bonds between them. Such bonds come strongly into play when family members back in South Sudan take ill or die (which seems to happen often). Support for one another at such times is indeed tangible. On reflection, I realise that keeping hope alive is one of the many fruits of service at the Centre.

“Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of hope,” Pope Francis often reminds us. I marvel at the way both Anna and Erick were able to keep hope alive despite their years of fear and endurance.

In front of me a small flickering flame atop a green candle catches my eye, causing me to wonder. It is struggling for life.

I ask myself: for how many might this be symbolic of their ‘hope’? Those people seeking asylum who are about to be made homeless, trafficked persons, people caught in slavery etc. What will it take for that flickering light to be fanned into flame for them?

Yet hope must prevail!

My recent weekend experience has done this for me.

From feeling overwhelmed, to learning what I can do to make a difference; from hearing the stories of refugees who refused to give up hope, to an impetus within me now for action: I am committed to keeping myself informed, to ‘doing my bit’ to bring awareness to those I meet, and to advocate for a change in government policies that are harsh and inhumane.

The flickering candle has done its bit.

Elizabeth Murray

Good Samaritan Sister Elizabeth Murray has taught in both primary and secondary schools, after which she worked with adults in liturgy and liturgical music formation. She holds degrees in music education, theology, and liturgy, and currently volunteers as an English tutor at Jesuit Refugee Service and the St Bakhita Centre for Sudanese Catholic Refugees. Among other things, she enjoys making music with others, doing aerobics and puzzling out jigsaws.

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