Reflecting on our welcome to migrants and refugees
I was a stranger and you welcomed me
It was 1956, and it seemed our little Primary School filled up overnight with new students from Poland, Hungary and other Middle European countries. In those days, there was no ESL training or teaching, and these children with very little English were expected to get on as best they could. The Sisters did their best with this new challenge and the children – New Australians we called them – tried to learn and adapt to this strange country and their new life. And we, the other children in the school, found the aromas from their lunches rather different and the beautiful costumes they wore to Church on special feast days rather exotic.
Fast forward to the 1970s and the number of war refugees from Vietnam and other parts of SE Asia left many gasping. Government and other programs, such as the Good Neighbour Councils, helped the new arrivals to become part of Australian Society. Programs for teaching English were set up and a concerted effort was made to overcome language and cultural differences. It wasn’t long before Chileans, El Salvadorans and others from Latin America were arriving on our shores.
But it seems that there is always somewhere in the world where there is a war, purporting to solve the problems that exist. Crises in Africa, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan saw millions fleeing from dictators, invaders, crushing poverty and lack of food that resulted from a devastated landscape.
Responding to all of these people who sought refuge in Australia were, among others, Presentation Sisters. In the Detention Centres in north Western Australia, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, Sisters have responded to the needs of those incarcerated – held in such places because they fled persecution the only way they could – by boat.
From Refugee Camps in Asia to places like Wellsprings for Women in Dandenong, the Presentation Family Centre in Balnarring, the Centacare Community Connections in Brisbane, Sisters have brought comfort, hope and practical help. And let’s not forget the many sisters who have written letters, walked in marches, attended rallies to show their support for refugees and Asylum Seekers.
One Vietnamese refugee in a camp in Thailand said: ‘It is important that people come to work here. That way, we know we have not been forgotten.’ I thought then that it didn’t matter if we hadn’t taught one word of English, just being there was important. We need to be the eyes and ears that look and listen, so that we can inform others who are not as fortunate as we who get to know Refugees and Asylum Seekers personally.
We need to be there – in the camp, in the detention centre, in the classroom, in the home – so that these people know that, when the time is right, someone is there to listen, to hear their story which in some way validates their experience. The telling of the story to a quiet, sympathetic listener may be the beginning of healing.
For the children in detention –
Eagerly she reaches out
to learn by touch
her father’s hand
shields from tear of barbed wire
the baby flesh.
Her first steps
on dusty pitted tracks,
her home a crowded hut
of fibro, tin and plastic.
there is another life
of fields and grass
and shady streams
romp and play,
in a land of plenty.
Secure in her father’s arms
her eyes not yet dulled
by the harsh reality
of the refugee camp.
by barbed-wire enclosed.
Annette Shears – June 2016
(Reflections on seeing a young Vietnamese father take his baby daughter for a walk around the camp each evening.)