September 2014

What asylum seekers and refugees have taught me

I hope we may learn to see the amazing potential of people who come by boat to our country, says Mercy Sister Elizabeth Young.

BY Elizabeth Young RSM

Coming to Australia to seek asylum is a daunting experience. In addition to the traumas of fleeing persecution and desperate situations in one’s home country, there are so many things to learn – new language, new customs, new laws, new climate. I have witnessed these struggles many times as I’ve shared with people in detention centres and those living in the community as refugees.

I first volunteered with the Australian Refugee Association in 2007, then at detention centres in Darwin, Port Augusta and Derby. These experiences have connected me with lasting friends, some of whom I am now able to visit in the Australian community. While I may have first approached these situations with something to offer, I soon discovered the treasures that people seeking asylum had within them. My life has been enriched by the wisdom, skills and life experience of these true survivors. I’d like you to meet some of my friends and discover what they have taught me.


I met a man in detention who talked on and on in good English, so much so, that I could barely get a word in. But as he talked, I realised he had never learned to read or write in his own language, Hazaragi. Since he’d come to Australia, nine weeks earlier, he had attended multiple English classes every day. His aim was just to get work, but he doubted he could contribute much to the world anymore and said a few times: “My life is ended”. All his opportunities seemed to be swallowed up in an endless wait for the chance to settle and provide for his family. He was not old, but he felt too broken to do any more than scrabble to survive. Instead, he invested all his hope in the next generation. Despite being separated by countries, he encouraged his wife to study so that she could help their children with school work. He did all he could to make sure they would have the opportunities that for him were unavailable.

I’ve often reflected since then about what I’m doing for future generations and whether I’d have the determination to learn to benefit others beyond my own life. My friend’s language achievement in those nine weeks inspires and challenges me to approach my own tasks with hope-filled determination.

Card games

I have learned numerous card games from people in detention: Donkey, Rummy, Colours. But the most memorable was learning Chinese Poker from a man who had been imprisoned in Australian detention centres for four years. As we played, he gave me some advice for surviving through such a long ordeal: take each day as it comes, don’t look to the past or future, but live for today. He was dealt a pretty harsh ‘hand’ in life, but had learned to ‘play with the cards in front of him’.

I, too, can feel ‘tricked’ into or ‘cheated’ by much lesser inconveniences in life, but his words remind me that dignity and forbearance through trials can mould one’s character for the better. I pray that I, too, may learn to live in the present, where freedom can be found within.


We were discussing Jesus’ healing stories in a detention centre one day. A man who we often saw praying for long periods on his knees related his own story of being miraculously healed. Another talked of the miracle of being alive after all the conflict he had experienced.

These anecdotes have given me a new appreciation of the power of faith and the gift that Jesus has been for us. Modern comforts and the prolonging of life often lead us to focus on the material world and forget divine grace and faith in the unseen. However, hope in the promise of heaven means so much to these men after a life of suffering and violence. I remember Jesus’ message of liberation in a world of religious rules and political miseries. These witnesses to faith help me to see the signs of God’s reign both now and in the promise of the future, when “all tears will be wiped away”.


In Port Augusta I went to watch the local soccer competition, to cheer for my friends who were refugees in the detention centre. As I watched, the manager of the competition encouraged me to play as well. During our visits to their centre, one of the refugees would try to teach me to kick goals. When I saw him a few weeks ago I told him that I’m still playing, although my team loses every year. Unfortunately he is still in a detention centre in Melbourne, three years on. In honour of my friends I will keep playing, and when I (eventually) score a goal, I’ll know who to dedicate it to.


I had already been offered a few drinks one day in a detention centre, so I refused the next offer. But the man countered by explaining that, for his people, their most important cultural value is hospitality. When they build a house, they build the guest rooms first, much larger and more lavish than their own quarters.

Since then, I have found a new calling to the ministry of hospitality, both giving and receiving.


Lastly, I want to share a quote from my friend, Hussain Sadiqi, who came to Australia by boat in 1999, and went on to make movies, start NGOs and win the World Martial Arts Festival. Hussain has given me lessons in body-building, but more importantly, he has taught me about courage and resilience. He said to me: “Any person who came by boat has a huge potential to be somebody because they have a big experience in their life. They want to be committed to a new country which is Australia. They want to become a member of this community without taking anything from here. They want to give something to this country”.

The word that stands out for me is “potential”. I hope we may learn to see the amazing potential of people who come by boat to our country. They have so many treasures that can only be found on the other side of a dangerous journey or an insurmountable obstacle. I hope and pray that we might be given the opportunity in Australia to receive the riches within those who sail towards our shores.

Elizabeth Young

Elizabeth Young is a member of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Most recently she has been working in youth and young adult ministry in the Diocese of Port Pirie, South Australia. In that time she has been a friend to asylum seekers in detention and refugees in the community. She also writes as part of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.

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