Archives for category: Refugees

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This is a tumultuous time of year. It is the pinnacle of many things and the culmination of others. For the circus group I run it was the final annual performance on Sunday night that brought the year to a head. But for children of the same age in Australia, the year is coming to a conclusion in the height of confusion, fear and trauma. They are the 44 children who are in danger of being sent to Nauru Detention Centre, after having escaped war or persecution in their home countries, fleeing by boat to Australia to seek asylum, being shifted around detention centres and seeing a young sibling being born into a cruel world. All as we try to prepare for the birth of Jesus, who came into just such a life of fear and uncertainty. Somewhere, hiding, ready to be born, is the source of love and welcome for these forgotten ones. But for 167 children already on Nauru, that pregnant glimmer of hope seems so far, far away.

I have been visiting refugees and asylum seekers in detention and in the community since 2007 and have made many friends. I have received so much from them, I have been inspired so much by them and I have wept so much for them. I have seen the options growing fewer, the chance of resettlement or reunion growing less possible and states of mind and body becoming desecrated. Phone calls from friends in mental health hospitals or scared of being sent back break my heart. I asked one 12-year-old girl in detention where home was for her. And she showed me a picture of piles of mutilated, naked, dead bodies from the war in her country. I can’t get that image out of my head.

This year, on visiting detention centres, I took a quote with me from St Ambrose: “If you know that anybody is hungry or sick, and you have any means at all and do not help, then you will have the responsibility for each one who dies, and for each little child who might be harmed and crippled for life.” Asylum seekers and refugees who had been in detention 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, even 7 years asked me, “And what can you do about this unfair situation?” At the time, I had no answer. But through prayer and reflection I felt a MORAL IMPERATIVE to act.

It was something that grew in me, quietly and persistently, over the last couple of years. I remember a prayer night last year where we read the call of Jeremiah. In that, I heard God calling me. I had no idea what that meant or what there was for me to do, but slowly part of the road became clearer at least. I had heard about Love Makes a Way through Facebook and a friend of mine had participated in an action in Adelaide. Before doing anything along this line, I knew it had to be OK with my community, the Sisters of Mercy, and the organisation with which I had worked in detention centres. Both were supportive and I knew God’s hand was firmly in it. I was very grateful also for the continuous support of my mother and sister in Kalangadoo.

The decision to become arrestable through a prayerful sit-in did not come lightly, however. By doing this, I knew I would risk having a criminal record and of not being able to return to visit detention centres. As the day for our action grew closer, my body reacted in a nervous way and so many questions about the process swirled in my head. When I met some of the others who would be involved the week before, a moment of clarity came when we had a few minutes of quiet together. I felt a sense of peace about it all, that God’s Spirit would be present throughout.

And so we went to Jamie Briggs MP’s office on the 10th of December 2014, at the same time as 53 religious leaders and members prepared for whatever might eventuate. Our continuous hope and prayer was that we would get an answer as to when the children on Nauru would be removed from detention, and a guarantee that no children would be sent offshore. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Sitting in Mr Briggs’s office with the others I found to be a very prayerful and powerful experience. I was glad that someone else could do the talking and we could do the praying. We had various prayers, songs and poems as the drama unfolded. Outside the office, other supporters sang and prayed too. Sometimes we joined in and sometimes we were different. A lovely moment was hearing Rabbi Shoshana chant a beautiful Jewish prayer or lament.

Then the police started to come in. Strangely enough they barely looked at us as one came in and out, then two came in and out to talk to the office staff. I guess they weren’t worried we were going to be going anywhere! Then we were each taken individually by officers to the very nearby police station. I was the second-to-last to leave and spent maybe 3 hours in the station, though I didn’t have my watch on. I was questioned standing in the hallway, as there wasn’t enough room for us all in offices. Then we waited for all the details to be taken, such as fingerprints and mug shots. As we were all completely new to the police system, this took much longer than usual. It gave us a lot of time to chat to the officers and each other. My officer was very polite and courteous, and we had some good conversation about family, Inverbrackie and the fact that he didn’t want to arrest us. It was funny to see his reaction when he learned, “I’ve arrested a nun!” I reassured him that he was just doing his job, as he seemed genuinely worried that he might be eternally punished.

We experienced nothing like the strip-searches or forcible removal of the Love Makes a Way people from other states that day. It was all quite comfortable, really. In fact, I felt that much greater discomfort would be endurable as we try to understand what it is like for innocent asylum seekers. Anyway, it was a blessing to be able to be positive and keep reinforcing our nonviolent, peaceful commitments.

After I got out it was rather surreal and I was by myself a fair bit. I used that time in the evening to catch up with things over the Internet and watch a video about the nonviolent protest movement of Negro Americans. I drove back to Port Augusta the next day, the fifth trip down and back from Adelaide (300kms) in just over 2 weeks. I think I was running on lots of adrenaline. That day I got a call from the office of Rowan Ramsey, my local MP, to have a visit from him while he was in town (Port Augusta). So I met him and his wife and had a respectful but seemingly fruitless conversation for 35 minutes at our house. While they conceded various problems for asylum seekers, they did not see the need to reduce the cruel treatment of them at this time.

In the next few days I felt quite drained and tired, though I had a big event to coordinate on Sunday night. I kept getting positive feedback from people about the Love Makes a Way action and knew that it had been important, part of something much bigger than myself. On Sunday night, we put on the Port Augusta Carols by Candlelight, which I coordinated, as well as preparing the circus performance, message and nativity scene throughout. Over 400 people came and it was a wonderful celebration. On reflection, the drama of the event of Jesus’ birth caused such a train of events as no one could have imagined. Who would have thought that a poor baby, in a humble stable from a backwater like Nazareth, would herald God’s salvation throughout humankind, the earth and all the universe itself? Some would have thought: No Way! But we hear the echo of God’s reply: Love Makes A Way!

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You were once strangers
in a strange land.
But never in Australia –
of course, you understand.
For never ‘cross our pristine shores
may strangers come and go
Unless we give them leave before
they must depart, you know.
We have a proud tradition
of settlers in this place
Who come from pure British stock –
the highest human race.
We’re forward-thinking democrats,
enlightened Christian roots;
Generous to the others,
but only when it suits.
There were perhaps some early folk
who camped but did not farm,
but they did not debate our claim
and brought on their own harm.
We treat this land the right way –
we profit and extract.
We’re literate and tidy
and by the law we act.
Of those who’re coming to us
we don’t know what they’ll do –
They wouldn’t handle freedom,
the ATM or modern loo.
We’ve far too many people
for this island nation state;
We can’t just let them pour on in
at this avalanching rate!
So someone’s got to stop them –
a Christian or Israelite
Remembering God’s words to us –
sure he didn’t get them right!

I was reading Deuteronomy 10:19 and the great irony of our situation in Australia hit me. These terrible things people are saying – and believing them!

The children saw our car bumping slowly towards them on the rough (oh, so rough) hill road, and ran towards us. They ran towards us with bouquets and headdresses made with flowers. “Free! They’re free!” they said in broken English. We took pictures and shared some snacks. Then our car bumped slowly on, on the rough (oh, so rough) hill road.

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Later, I traveled further up the mountains of Papua New Guinea, to the town of Mount Hagen. We were 6 Sisters of Mercy traveling from Goroka, 4 to stay and 2 to go on to a further village. The 2 got a message when we arrived. “Come quickly, so you can pack up your most important things!” Their village is subject to continuous tribal warfare and this time the target was the house next to theirs. The other Sister living with them was afraid it would be burnt down, and theirs along with it.

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I stepped outside their gate, to be confronted by this pile of rubbish. Even things that could be reused, like drink bottles, were thrown away, crushed under vehicle wheels on the road. It was local election time and utes were traveling around town with loudspeakers, promoting this or that candidate. The Sisters were pleased that there seemed not too great an amount of violence this time. Even so, one went outside to buy some veges for tea, just outside our house. But she returned a few minutes later with no sweet potato. “They were firing guns, everyone was running away!” she said.

It was only a month ago I was in PNG with the Sisters, nearly all of whom were born there. Some were raised in villages that could only be reached by foot; most had achieved year 10 level of schooling by their late 20s or 30s. Recently they put out a statement saying that 40% of New Guineans live on less than US$1 a day. 87% of the working-age population are unemployed. We watched a video about the people of Mortlock Island, near Bouganville, who will have to leave there very soon as the seas are rising. However, they face uncertainty in Bouganville as they are not ‘wantoks’, or neighbours, and do not have ancestral land. Others of our Sisters work in Kiunga with the refugees from West Papua who eke out an existence on next to nothing.

And this is where Australia wants to resettle refugees permanently? Are free flowers the only humane solution?

We are all weighed down by the harshness of Labor and Coalition plans for asylum seekers who arrive to Australia by boat.

I met one of these men once, who had come by boat from Sri Lanka. He spoke with regret about having been married when still a child to avoid being conscripted to the Tamil Tigers. Yet he also spoke with love about his wife and two children, who he desperately missed. He had been in exile in India, before returning to Sri Lanka and having to escape again to Malaysia, Indonesia and finally Australia. It was a long journey to this point and, finally landing in Australia, he faced having to be returned to Sri Lanka or living in suspense for years in our unwelcoming country.

Biography in Brief

Married at eight
to escape my fate,
exiled at twenty years old.
Now twenty-seven,
I’m almost for heaven,
life’s over and death has a hold.

But though we did part
you still hold my heart:
each second you are in my mind.
My family dear,
I’m wishing you here;
in our distance don’t leave love behind.

Music, food, stories, sharing, art and best of all, a nice warm hall which the Anglican Church provided at the very last minute! While we weren’t prepared for rain, we were prepared for conversation and hospitality, as we gathered with diverse people from the town and beyond. We were a mix of backgrounds, from Aboriginal to European to refugees and recent migrants. There was such a pervasive spirit of welcome to one and all, brought together in a statement which was used nationally combined with a Port Augusta focus:

“We believe Australians are a welcoming, generous and compassionate people. We believe an Australia is possible where prejudice is unpopular and cruelty hurts at the polls. An Australia that recognises the equality and dignity of all people – no matter who you are, where you’re from or how you arrived here – and extends out values of fairness and mateship to everyone.

We dream of a nation that celebrates diversity, made up of communities where people of our First Nations, asylum seekers, refugees, international students, skilled migrants and every other human being can experience the joy and security of belonging.
Here in Port Augusta, we welcome diversity, and we are home to many, from Aboriginal Australians to new migrants. We have a history of detention centres and asylum seekers, and some of us have met those who seek safety and freedom from persecution in our land. Together we walk; together we strive to live with compassion, in peace and harmony.”

We heard a moving story from Hoveida Saberi, a Baha’i from Iran who had to flee from persecution there. She told how 3 Baha’i houses on her street were burned down. When the mob came again to burn down Baha’i houses, her Muslim neighbours stepped up to tell the mob that if they wanted to burn houses, they would have to start at the start of the street – the Muslim houses. Their courage, putting their lives on the line for their neighbours, was how Hoveida survived to tell the story today.

Thank you to all who took part here today – the musicians, those who provided food from all corners of the globe, the Anglican church community, those who traveled long distances to join us and the committee.

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I’ve learned some pretty significant things about my refugee friends in the last week, which have made me both cry and rejoice.

We were visiting the Sri Lankan refugees here in the Port Augusta detention centre and the conversation turned to the big storm in the Americas. I pitched in: where my brother and his wife live, their streets were flooded and the power was out. The refugees agreed it was pretty bad. But then someone mentioned, “Of course, you’ve had your own big storm – the tsunami in 2004″. The refugees agreed, but unlike me, didn’t venture their own personal stories. It was only when I dug deeper that I found out… I asked one man how the tsunami had affected his area. He had been a fisherman, living with his family in a small coastal village, I knew. Well, it turned out that in 2004, the big wave completely submerged it. He demonstrated with his arms how it came upon them. He had grabbed his children and ran for higher ground. They were lucky and sheltered in a school, but his father and about 5 or 6 relatives he named, died.  His house and fishing boats were destroyed. Sometime after that his son died too. His surviving family  were living with disability from the fighting between the Tamil Tigers and government in his village. He escaped soon after that, but has been away from his family for 7 years. He now rings them every day and did the maths showing me how he could stretch his stipend to get enough phone card credit to do this. 42,000 Sri Lankans died because of that tsunami. Wow – talk about a storm…

More positively, I heard some good news stories from refugees now out of detention for some years. A friend from Afghanistan has a pretty inspiring story. He is a martial artist and I met him when doing the Melbourne circus course in 2006. Lately he has been doing fight scenes for movies and even making his own. But last week I found out that he had WON the gold medal at a World Martial Arts Festival at Kish Island. Another inspiring Iranian refugee now lives in Port Pirie and I saw him yesterday at his café. Well, he too had WON a regional baristas’ competition. He now goes on to train and compete for the international event. What wonderful examples!

There are different ways to measure success. These last two people have become successful in the eyes of the world – and rightly so. Yet I think it is also pretty incredible that the Sri Lankan man, after all that has happened, finds the courage to look each new day in the eye. Despite poor English, he is someone that continues to come out when the others are too depressed. This is success too – to keep hope and strength in the tough times. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who weep now: you shall laugh.” May the day also come to rejoice.

The refugees we visit at the detention centre have had 2 big wins this week. The first you may have heard of. On Friday, the High Court ruled in favour of a refugee in the same situation who brought a case about indefinite detention following a negative security clearance. While we don’t know exactly what that will mean for these refugees, it is certainly a step forward. They are currently in complete limbo, as they have been found to be genuine refugees, so can not be sent back to Sri Lanka. Yet they also can’t stay in Australia and no other country seems to want them. But now we hope a door might be opened for them to move forward, at least to have some legal process.

The second win was at soccer!!! Tonight was the grand final of the local competition and the refugees have fielded a strong side in division 2. I started going to watch them early in the season and soon got roped in to playing myself! Fortunately my lack of skill was not so evident as I joined a team that made it proudly to the bottom of the ladder. We had fun and tried our hardest, but were no match for a team such as the All Stars. The All Stars were so named by a previous group of refugees who played the local soccer and it stuck. They had wins for much of the season and should have easily got into the finals, but lost the qualifying final. As they were the top team, they got a second chance and came back easily to win the semis. Now, tonight, everything was very serious as they played the team they had lost to in the first final.

I’ve never been interested in watching ball sports, but I’ve found it so much fun when I know the players. The game was really on edge for the first half. Both teams played hard and no one got a goal until finally All Stars got one before the half-time whistle. I don’t know what happened in the break, but when they came back, All Stars led all the way. The other team got one goal, but the refugees ended up with 6. There were some very specky ones, with slides and the ball finding its way between multiple players to the goal. I wished there was a video of it, so one could see “magic moments” later on in slow motion. One day…One day they will be out, one day they will be able to go to soccer presentations (not possible now because they serve alcohol at the venue!), one day they will not be playing to distract themselves from the hopelessness of their situation. One day, it will be a win greater than soccer grand finals, God willing.

I have just watched some of the funeral of a Vietnamese priest who was the pioneer of the Vietnamese Catholic community in Adelaide. A Vietnamese bishop from Melbourne made some remarks about him naming the church ‘Our Lady of the Boat People’. He said it was a sign of the priest’s ability to connect faith with the real lives of his community. I think it says a lot more. ‘Our Lady of the Boat People’ at first hearing is confronting, shocking even. The negative views some people have of boat people, especially in this politically charged time, make it as provocative as ‘Our Lady of the Mafia’. It faces head-on the way that this community arrived in Australia and places Mary (and Jesus) squarely on the side of the poor and disenfranchised. We would do well to repeat it today: God is with all those who arrive here by boat, desperately seeking peace and human rights. ‘Our Lady of the Boat People’ as a symbol is as challenging as our original symbol as Christians: the cross. Everyone who saw it in Jesus’ day saw the cruelty, the inhumanity of those treated as outcasts. Certainly not something to glorify. But now we hold up this symbol of suffering as a sign of God’s triumph in the end, even over death. I hope one day ‘Our Lady of the Boat People’ will be such a symbol of a tragic past, from which brave people have emerged to create lives of dignity and purpose.

Saturday the 23rd of June was day of Refugee Week when people from all around Australia united at 1pm to Walk Together. This was about bringing together all Australians: Aboriginal Australians, refugees, new and old migrants and asylum seekers. The photo shows some of us who carried this banner for our Walk Together in Port Augusta. We also walked with a number of refugees and an asylum seeker from the Port Augusta Immigration Residential Housing (detention centre), who have been 3 years in detention. Unfortunately, however, we were not allowed to take a photo of them with us.

This morning our young Vietnamese friends from the detention centre were transported away, to the much larger one in Darwin. Yesterday we greeted teary faces for our farewells and final Mass together in the centre. We hope that in Darwin, at least, they will be able to go out of the centre to Mass, as the current detainees are able to attend the Cathedral and local parishes. However, here in Port Augusta, they were here 8 months and were only once able to attend Mass. Rather, 5 of them were able to come. It was only last week when the staff allowed 5 boys and young men to attend the church for a special delivery. At Christmas time, as they could not come to the church, they constructed an amazing coloured Cathedral out of paper and cardboard. It stands about 1.5m high and is intricately designed and fashioned. As they could not take it when leaving the centre, they were allowed to donate it to our Port Augusta church. What a privilege! We have it standing in the front foyer and I took a rather bad photo of it on my phone. I had to lighten out the foreground, as it was all in shadow and what you can see really doesn’t do justice to its multicoloured effect. There was one young Vietnamese man in particular who had the craftsperson’s gift. He made large origami birds, vases, teapots and even a mitre (tall hat) for the bishop who came to visit for Vietnamese New Year. Yesterday, on our last visit, he showed us his latest creation. It was a large doll’s house, made entirely of popsticks. It has stairs and 7 rooms, including a prayer room and toilet!

I gave out some bookmarks with a photo of their cardboard church (they were not allowed to have any photos of it in the centre) and a Bible verse. One of the littlest girls received one that said, “Jesus came and said to them, Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” She looked at the picture and then said, “I know what this says. That Jesus will be with me in Darwin.” Today the Vietnamese fly away, but their church stays here. Luckily, Jesus is not limited to a building, a house, or a church. He will be with them there in Darwin too, along with our prayers.