Seeking justice for refugees and asylum seekers

The diocesan Social Justice Council hosted the official launch of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) Social Justice Statement on Thursday 24 September at Mayfield Parish Hall, ahead of Social Justice Sunday. 

About 70 people attended the launch, which also included a blessing for CatholicCare Refugee Service, the diocese’s outreach arm supporting refugees in the Hunter.

Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries, Teresa Brierley, welcomed those gathered and outlined the day’s plan – to listen to stories, share multicultural cuisine, get to know someone from a different background and be challenged to action by the Social Justice Statement.

Teresa acknowledged the profound work of Sr Betty Brown RSJ, who established Penola House (now CatholicCare Refugee Service). The volunteers who assisted Sr Betty and Sr Diana Santleben OP at Penola House are still welcoming and advocating for refugees in our region today at the same Mayfield location.

Guests were privileged to hear the stories of John Sandy and Matilda Brown.

John fled the intimidation, harassment and murder rampant in Sierra Leone in 2000. He and his wife, already separated by the conflict, ended up in different refugee camps with no idea what had become of each other. Years later, John heard from a friend that his wife was in Australia and had been looking for him. He knew of only one person in the camp who had a mobile phone and so in order to make contact with his wife, he walked for 3 weeks and 2 days and literally gave the clothes off his back and the shoes from his feet to the man with the phone, as that was all he had.

He made contact with his wife, but it took another six years to make it to Australia.

When it was finally time to go, John was “so happy I couldn’t sleep”. So that his wife would recognise him after not seeing each other for so long, John told her that he would be the one waving a Sierra Leone flag when he disembarked!

It is humbling to speak to John who is now working with CatholicCare Refugee Service (“My dream”) and finishing his Social Work honours degree at the University of Newcastle.

“Penola House and now CatholicCare Refugee Service is an amazing place. It has changed my life. It is a friendly and welcoming place. Without it I would be scared to be different. I will never be able to repay what they have done for me. The volunteers have taught me some of the most amazing lessons of my life, especially that I should never be embarrassed about being a refugee,” said John.

Matilda Brown’s story was also humbling.

Originally from Liberia in West Africa, Matilda spent years in a refugee camp in Ghana where conditions were harsh. Her three children often had to go without food or clothes. Matilda’s family was eventually offered refuge in Australia and arrived in 2005.

Matilda thanks God for Sr Betty and Sr Di and calls Penola House “my second God”. The Sisters and volunteers also helped her escape a violent partner and Matilda, who has since gained a Certificate III in Aged Care and remarried, is very happy.

“Thank God for my kids and refugee services. I feel like a woman and not a slave. Everyone has shown me such love and care. At CatholicCare Refugee Service they embrace everyone, they do not pick and choose. They are true people of God who have changed my life,” said Matilda.

Matilda’s son Solomon also offered words of wisdom. He is a proud Australian who, when people ask where he is from, always says, “Newcastle”! He said that refugees are people who fight for opportunity.

“Your misery can be history. Don’t be shy about who you are,” said Solomon.

Director of CatholicCare Social Services, Helga Smit, spoke passionately about the services offered by CatholicCare Refugee Service and praised the wonderful staff and volunteers who give so much of themselves for the good of refugees in our region.

“We offer support, education, information and advocacy services, but most importantly we help refugees move from a place of dependency to being self-sufficient. The people at CatholicCare Refugee Service help refugees to feel like they belong here,” said Helga.

The other services offered by CatholicCare, like counselling, can also help refugees overcome the trauma they have experienced. Community partnerships also enhance CatholicCare’s ability to offer evidence-based programs for holistic support of refugees.

The need for refugee services is increasing and CatholicCare is planning to expand its current services to meet this need. Volunteers are always welcome.

Bishop Bill Wright endorsed the Social Justice Statement and recalled his childhood friendships with two refugee boys.

“In my experience I think Australians love refugees. We are in the strange political landscape of parties competing with each other to see who can be the toughest. My closest childhood friend was the son of a German Jew. He was my mate. We burnt leaves in the gutter together and blew up ant nests with double bungers.

“In high school I became friends with the son of Hungarian refugees and his dad gave me my first job. He is still one of my closest friends,” said Bishop Bill.

While Bishop Bill laments the fearfulness that has infected the political agenda in recent times, “it’s not really our history.

“The Social Justice Statement encourages people to make our streets and communities places of welcome. It calls upon us to put pressure on politicians and at the same time review our own thinking and play our part in making Australia a welcoming place.

“This is an important stage in our national life. We are witnessing the largest displacement of people since World War II. Australia was suddenly able to take 12,000 Syrian refugees when we couldn’t take a single one the week before. We need compassion beyond justice. We need to shape our thinking away from the damaging ways of recent times,” said Bishop Bill.

Guests at the launch were treated to a wonderful Eritrean banquet prepared by Leteberhan and her son Tedros and served by local reality TV personalities, Carly and Tresne from “My Kitchen Rules 2014”.

To help refugees you can follow the ten steps recommended by the Australian Social Justice Council.

  1.        Listen to refugee and asylum seeker stories.
  2.        Allow yourself to be touched by these stories.
  3.        Get the facts from reliable sources.
  4.        Pray regularly for refugees and asylum seekers.
  5.        Envision a new way of responding humanely.
  6.        Work to raise awareness in your parish, schools and communities.
  7.        Join or set up a support group for asylum seekers and refugees in your parish.
  8.        Support agencies assisting asylum seekers and refugees (in our region you could volunteer with CatholicCare Refugee Service or donate money, goods and services).
  9.        Challenge your political representatives to take a stand.
  10.    Join in 2016 events: Refugee Week and Refugee and Migrant Sunday.

You can read the Social Justice Statement at 

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Joanne Isaac Image
Joanne Isaac

Joanne is a Communications Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and a regular columnist for Aurora Magazine.

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