Refugees and Asylum Seekers

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Reflecting on welcome to migrants

Collecting the day's water

Collecting the day’s water

and refugees

For Refugee Week 2016, Annette Shears of the Presentation Congregation Queensland, shares our continuing Presentation story of working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and affirms that we are part of the call that “all are welcome here”. READ MORE

From Heartache to Joy …

Presentation Sisters from around Australia and in Thailand have experienced both the heartache and the joy of their involvement with refugees and asylum seekers. The Sisters work in partnership with schools, parishes, dioceses, other congregations, inter-faith groups or in advocacy at the highest political levels. The building of personal relationships from teaching English to our newest arrivals or supporting them to adjust to a new environment and culture is so important to the individual as well as to the Sisters who are enriched by this experience.

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A Blessing to Teach Refugees

I am Sr Joseph McVilly from Tasmania and I teach refugees at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Lenah Valley, Hobart. I am a member of the Catholic Refugee Support Group (CRSG) under Centrecare.

Working with refugees is to me a blessing, for what you give comes back to you a hundredfold, in friendship and in the example they give in their acceptance and in the courage they show as they ‘start again’ in a land and culture so different from their own. I have learned so much over the years. As their trust with you grows they tell you their stories … of running, of death, of cruelty, of stealing of boys to be used as boy soldiers, of escape, of families being torn apart etc. Then there is the joy — a new-born baby, a family member found. The trauma of it all is so lasting.

Besides teaching English I visit homes, fill out endless forms, provide transport to church, sporting fixtures, doctors and hospitals, prepare for the sacraments, negotiate school fees, uniforms and books and generally give a listening ear. I hold in trust a host of their stories. I love what I do and as I said feel very blessed!

Sr Joseph McVilly pbvm (Tasmania Congregation)

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Lismore Sisters involved in a variety of ways

Over a number of years Lismore Presentation Sisters have helped and continue to help refugees adapt to their new environment and advocate on their behalf. This they have done individually, communally or in partnership with others.

My first encounter with asylum seekers was with a Cambodian family who were sponsored by the Blacktown parish in the 1980s. Anne Henson and Margaret Mary helped their integration into life in Australia in many ways and still keep in touch.

Mary McFadden, when living in Sydney, regularly visited the Villawood Detention Centre. In her work at the UN (2012) Mary advocated vigorously for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.

Patricia O’Brien worked with the Sanctuary movement giving general help with homework for secondary students as part of Homework Club.

Julianne Murphy has been a volunteer for 5 years at the St Bakita Centre for the Sudanese Australian Catholic Community at Flemington in the western suburbs of Sydney. The Centre is supported by the Archdiocese of Sydney and Josephite Community Aid is very involved in its activities. The women she teaches didn’t go to school in their home countries so they could not read or write. Julianne teaches them to speak, read and write English, do basic addition and subtraction, understand bills, how to pay the rent and fill in forms from, for example, Centrelink or childcare. They also need help with understanding our culture and living in a consumer society – how to ask for something in a shop rather than picking items off the supermarket shelf or how to order a cup of coffee.

Jill Kennedy has worked extensively with a family from the Congo. (See Refugee Mission below)

Our Lismore and Ballina groups of Presentation people have been closely involved in supporting the work of Sanctuary in helping refugees settle into life in the Northern Rivers area of NSW. They have been involved with fundraising activities (barbeques, curry nights!) to raise money for airfares for refugees, and Mary O’Brien hosted a family from Sierra Leone in her home until they could find accommodation.

Sisters and Associates have supported online petitions to lobby for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Letters have been written by the Leadership Team on behalf of the Congregation to Government Ministers encouraging them to work towards a more humane policy, e.g. in January of this year a letter of support was sent to Melissa Parke for her courageous stand in Parliament asking  for a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers.

Anne Shay pbvm (Lismore Congregation)

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Refugee Mission

I remember the impact that a movie made on me recently when a camera zoomed in over rows and rows of tents which housed thousands and thousands of refugees. I had this sense of despair as I wondered how on earth anyone might help the plight of the people living in this situation.

Sanctuary did do something and three years ago it assisted a Congolese husband, wife and their one child to settle in Lismore. The couple and their now three small boys occupy the house of a wonderful older local couple who love to travel and who generously offered their house to the once-were-refugee family. When the owners return from their travels, they live in a flat attached to their occupied home.

For years determining my ministry was “easy”. I ministered to a “captive” audience of teenagers in the classrooms and then patients in hospital beds! That followed with five years of pastoral care to the Sisters of my Congregation while I was in leadership.

Afterwards it was time to find my new mission area. The local newspaper advertised for “Volunteers on the Road” to help people who were refugees to gain their driving licence in order to give them greater independence, freedom and to further their job opportunities.

I volunteered to do this and was introduced to a French speaking Congolese woman. Between her French and her native Swahile language, understanding my English directions of “turn right or turn left” requires a fair amount of brain work – while learning to drive a motor vehicle! The last month of Jee’s (not her real name) pregnancy interrupted our lessons but after the birth, it was full steam ahead. Unfortunately, Jee failed her first driving test (cost $50), so we practised three corner turns and parallel parking over and over again. Jee passed the second test.  Within a short while of that achievement she shared the driving with her husband, and they and their three children drove to Brisbane – successfully – to spend some time with friends.

About the same time, I had offered to tutor students in English at the local TAFE and, as Jee was one of the students, I now tutor her in her English study. Reading her Aged Care course’s text has meant that I have now learnt more detailed theory about Aged Care than I ever knew while I worked with some aged patients as a hospital Social Worker!

If I were to view again the movie I mentioned at the beginning of my writing, my present mission might give me a little better sense that I am doing some small thing for a couple of refugees who have now successfully gained their permanent residency status and are integrating very successfully into our society.

Mine is a small effort to do what I can “for the life of the world, for the sake of the Holy and the whole” (Carol Zinn SSJ).

Jill Kennedy pbvm (Lismore Congregation)

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Justice Contacts’ Work on behalf of Justice for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

The Justice Contacts have been strongly involved in lobbying for the rights of asylum seekers by their letters to our political leaders, congratulating them on small gains made and urging them to instigate more humane policies when needed.

Through the Society Justice Jottings, we have endeavoured to:

  • Tell the human stories such as the story of Ranjini who (with her children), though assessed as a genuine refugee, still remains in detention.
  • Put the Australian situation into a global perspective.
  • Inform Presentation people and all readers about the situation faced by those in detention centres.
  • Present an alternative model through the writings of people such as John Menadue.
  • Quote from Catholic sources on this vexed issue.

To send asylum seekers away might help us to shut our conscience,
but does not stop the cry of the poor which will rise towards God
and for whom we will be held accountable.

Fr Maurizio Pettena CS
Director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office

Anne Shay pbvm (on behalf of the Justice Contacts from six congregations)

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A Privilege to Work with Refugees

My role as School Pastoral Worker in a multicultural primary school community of 520 students in a low socio-economic area puts me in daily contact with African refugee families.

My role gives me the freedom to become a significant person in their lives and to respond to or facilitate responses to their specific needs.

It’s a very practical ministry. It is a ministry of connectedness, relationships, of nurturing, enabling and empowering. It’s an absolute privilege and a joy to journey with these children and their families.

Sue Walpole pbvm (Queensland Congregation)

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Villawood Detention Centre, Sydney Australia

I have been actively involved in Refugee Groups in Wagga and the Blue Mountains over the past number of years. However, I hadn’t visited a detention centre before until this year. It is hard to describe what it does to you seeing the tall wire fences and then actually meeting the people in Villawood. One man has been there for four years. Many do not speak English but we get by and often there is someone to interpret. We can take food in but really nothing else. All other items go through the system. As you get to know the people you realise the blessings you have in your life. One couple I met had come to visit family and ended up in Villawood. They have a young family back in their home country which is heartbreaking for them.

We spend time talking to various people, playing cards, sometimes helping them in some area of need. There is a number of sisters from other congregations who visit as well as other groups or parishes. One thing that strikes me is that many are very young, men and women. I am hoping to attend Mass on Fridays but getting security clearance can take many weeks. I am sure Nano’s heart would go out to those in the detention centre. I have been visiting now for a few months and really look forward to my visits.

Sheila Quonoey pbvm (Wagga Wagga Congregation)

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Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce

I was invited to attend a meeting in February of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce as a representative of the Presentation Sisters and Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH). A prepared concept paper enabled the group to explore how this new structure could operate and to suggest possible actions for 2013. It was agreed that we need to act quickly being the election year. An interim core group will work on the material gathered. For the time being we will work together via the internet. A draft Theological Statement was discussed and refined.

I came away encouraged and enriched by this encounter with people who had such a compassionate stance towards refugees. They also had a real understanding around what blocks us as a nation from welcoming the stranger. The suggested plan of action was clear and realistic. I look forward to working into the future with this new network.

This new initiative is supported by the National Council of Churches in Australia. In November 2012 Misha Coleman was employed to begin the process of setting up a Refugee Taskforce. This Taskforce will consist of a Core Group, an Amos Group of Concerned Church Leaders and a Taskforce Network. Recently in Melbourne, the Refugee Taskforce Network met for the first time. There were thirty people present, representing eight Churches and many service organisations. A number of people came from interstate. Several refugee women were part of this gathering.

Joan Kennedy pbvm (Victorian Congregation)

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Close Manus Island Detention Centre

On Tuesday 12 February 2013 Rosemary Grundy pbvm and I attended a demonstration outside the Papua New Guinea Consulate in Adelaide Street, Brisbane. This was the day when proceedings commenced in the Papua New Guinea courts, arguing that the Manus Island Detention Centre is illegal under PNG law. Lawyers acting on behalf of PNG Opposition Leader, Belden Namah, are seeking to have the Manus Island Detention Centre declared unconstitutional.

The rally was organised by the Refugee Action Collective Qld in Brisbane. A number of people joined on either side of the street. Several demonstrators were themselves former asylum seekers but now have residency.

Speakers included Andrew Bartlett and Frederica Steen. They described the distressing conditions of men, pregnant women, and children who are held at Manus Island. The asylum seekers do not know how long they will be held there – even criminals are given a time frame for their sentences!

The lunch hour crowds walked between the lines of protestors and some accepted the handout material describing the conditions in the centre, and calling for a change of policy by the Australian Government.

Peta Anne Molloy pbvm (Queensland Congregation)

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A Delight to Teach Refugees and Asylum Seekers

My involvement with refugees started in 1985 when I first began teaching English as a second language and all of my students in the first year were Vietnamese! When I retired from paid employment in 2009, I wanted to continue my involvement with refugees on a voluntary basis. So it was in 2010 I joined the Multicultural Development Association (MDA – one of the agencies that have a contract from the Government to aid in the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers that are placed in Brisbane). I took part in the ‘family match’ program, where the volunteer makes a 6 month commitment to visit a newly settled family for 1½-2 hours each week and help them read their mail, understand what appointments they have and where they have to go, help them with learning English, maybe help children with their homework. Depending on the needs and the interests of the people involved, I have taken some shopping, showed others how to use public transport, helped them phone tradespeople and given tips on safety in the home. One lady wanted to grow herbs and flowers. Sometimes an emergency may arise when you are with the family, e.g. when a ceiling light fell down and we had to get an electrician immediately and the mother did not have enough English to explain the situation. After each visit I contact the case worker to update them on the family and inform them of any issues that the case worker needs to sort out. Families I have worked with in this program have come from Eritrea, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka.

Some ethnic communities expressed to MDA the need for help in learning the material to do the test to obtain Australian citizenship. After writing a simplified version of the material, I worked with several communities, and with the aid of an interpreter, I taught the information and the necessary computer skills to do the exam. Some of the communities were Karen (from Burma), Burundi and Afghanistan.

The Family Support Centre at Cannon Hill has, on Monday afternoons, an English Conversation Class which I teach, aided by one of our Associates. The students are a mixture of migrants and refugees coming from countries such as El Salvador, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Cambodia. They are mostly women, some with school age children, and are a delight to teach.

The Immigration Detention Centre, near Brisbane Airport, was another location where I taught English. Some of the difficulties were the changing population, depression suffered by many asylum seekers, the fact that you never knew ahead of time whether you would have 1 or 10 people to teach or what level of English they had.

Annette Shears pbvm (Queensland Congregation)

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Pastoral Care for Refugee Families

At St John’s Primary School in Auburn, Sydney, I work part-time in Pastoral Care, reaching out mainly but not exclusively to twenty-five Sudanese families who arrived as refugees from 2002 to 2006.

Many initiatives have been undertaken over the years to support the children and their families, for example, the weekly English Conversation gatherings for the women, the interactive Play Group for mothers and their pre-schoolers, settling in programmes for the children in the school.

On-going are the one-to-one sessions for the children helping them in areas like conflict resolution, self-esteem and confidence building, acquisition of social skills and group participation in the Seasons For Growth Grief and Loss Programme.

For the last five years we have been running a homework club after school for the African students who struggle with Literacy and Mathematics.

One day a week, for one hour after school, the children gather in our Library where a large number of volunteers (many University students and ex-teachers) act as mentors and spend an hour with individual students. The building up a good relationship between student and tutor is an important goal of the program. At the end of each term, there is a session of fun provided by people skilled in either sports, music or drama.

The homework club is of immeasurable value to the students … their parents are unable to help them with their homework, and very often there is neither a space nor quiet place for them to sit down and complete their assignments.

Fran Walsh pbvm (Wagga Wagga Congregation)

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House of Welcome

The Wagga Wagga Congregation has supported the House of Welcome for asylum seekers in Western Sydney over a number of years, through financial assistance, volunteer hours and the provision of a one bedroom unit for their use.

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Ministry with Refugees in Thailand

In 2013 Sister Cecilia (Western Australian Congregation) is continuing as the Field Director of COERR (Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees) for the Ratchaburi Diocese. She visits nine camps, two near Ratchaburi and seven in the north of Thailand. Visiting these northern camps involves nineteen hours of stressful driving through dangerous terrain.

Sr Cecilia trains the staff of COERR in the program Healing of Memory and Reconciliation. This program is aimed at helping the people in the camps to cope with their pain and suffering, and to deal with conflict within themselves. These refugees are enabled to participate in such programs as planting and tending vegetables, and the making of Tiger Balm, candles and soap. Sr Cecilia and her workers aim to help each person to be fully alive and fully human. As part of her camp ministry Cecilia visits the homes of the refugees. The children and elderly are given extra food as they are often under-nourished. In the northern camps warm clothing is distributed.

As part of the COERR, Cecilia and her co-workers spend two days working with the people in the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok, sitting and listening to the people tell their sad stories. Cecilia and her co-workers interact with many nationalities including African, Austrian, Burmese, Chinese, Karen, French, Japanese and Laos. Sr Cecilia finds this work very challenging and fulfilling.

Catherine Warner pbvm (Western Australia Congregation)