TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: It takes courage to be a refugee

At the end of a rainy weekend, I am at my desk, pleased to be warm and dry, while pondering those whose lives are not so fortunate. 

Today, Sunday 18 June, begins Refugee Week, an annual activity to raise awareness of the issues affecting refugees and to celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society.

The theme for Refugee Week for 2015-2017 is “With courage let us all combine”, taken from the second verse of the national anthem:

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross,
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas,
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia Fair.

The theme celebrates the courage of refugees and of people who speak out against persecution and injustice. It serves as a call for unity and for positive action, encouraging Australians to improve our nation’s welcome for refugees and to acknowledge the skills and energy refugees bring to their new home.

I think such an ideal is reflected in the weekend’s Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi). On this day, we think about the many parts that make up the one body of Christ. We are indeed many parts but one body, with one mission. This is picked up beautifully in the second reading from the First letter of St Paul to the Corinthians (10:16-17)

The blessing-cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is a communion with the body of Christ. The fact that there is only one loaf means that, though there are many of us, we form a single body because we all have a share in this one loaf.

Though there are many of us, we share this one planet, this one place we all call home.

As I watched some young children from the parish receive their first Holy Communion, I wondered how many of them or their families really appreciate the immense gift of salvation we have been privileged to receive. And of course, with this great gift comes the responsibility to serve. So without appreciating the gift of salvation, the responsibility to serve is not recognised. We are indeed a missionary church, called to be disciples and sent out into the world, to witness to the person of Jesus, the Good News.

For those of you who are keen to learn more about Refugee Week there is an amazing Resource Kit that is available from www.refugeeweek.org.au. It serves as a sound reminder that those who seek refuge are our brothers and sisters. There are bound to be many activities in your community this week to celebrate the unique diversity which people from different cultures bring to our nation. I hope you attend some of what is on offer.

On Saturday 1 July, you are all invited to attend the Newcastle – Celebrating Unity in Diversity Festival beginning at 11am at Gregson Park, Hamilton with The Unity Welcome Walk. Please consider coming along as a sign of support, but also to join in the celebrations and the international food, and in doing so, celebrate the positive contributions to Australian society made over the past 70 years by the 800,000 Australians who once were refugees.

The aims of Refugee Week are:

  • To educate the Australian public about who refugees are and why they have come to Australia
  • To help people understand the many challenges refugees face in coming to Australia
  • To celebrate the contributions refugees make to our communities
  • To focus on how the community can provide a safe and welcoming environment for refugees
  • For community groups and individuals to do something positive for refugees and people seeking asylum who are displaced within Australia and around the world
  • For service providers to reflect on whether they are providing the best possible services to people from refugee backgrounds.

It takes courage to be a refugee: As people who have faced persecution because of who they are (their race, nationality or membership of a persecuted group) or what they believe (their religion or political opinion), refugees need courage:

  • The courage not to deny identity or beliefs in the face of persecution
  • The courage to leave all that is familiar and step into the unknown in search of peace
  • The courage to keep going in the face of devastating loss, difficulty and despair
  • The courage to begin again, to work hard and to maintain hope in an unfamiliar land

According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Global Trends Report 2015, there are now 21.3 million refugees worldwide, with Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia being the top countries of origin. Over one million of these people need to be resettled, with only 100,000 places being offered by governments. In 2015-16, the Australian Government granted 17,555 refugee and humanitarian visas.

It takes courage to speak out against injustice: In a world where refugees experience persecution in their countries of origin, and often face discrimination, difficulty and rejection in places where they seek refuge, speaking out often requires courage. In Refugee Week, we acknowledge and celebrate the dedication and bravery of refugee leaders, advocates and citizens who draw attention to violations of human rights, support people at their time of greatest need and challenge callous indifference to the suffering of others.

Please take the time this week to listen to the story of at least one person who has come to Australia seeking refuge. These people are our neighbours, our work colleagues or for many of you reading this, your family. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to feel the fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Surely our Christian ethic demands that we be more generous to the millions who are displaced and have no place to call home. They have been cut off from all that gives them their identity – their land, language, families, work, communities, education etc.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ wrote the following as part of an article in last week’s Eureka Street:

For Australians, World Refugee Day is a time of remembering. It is a time to remember the human stories of those who have fled from their own nations to seek protection. It is a time to remember and treasure the little things that give shape to our lives – the smells, sounds and sights of our childhood and their continuity with our lives today, and to remember that for refugees these things have been stripped away.

It is a time to remember what has been done to refugees when they come to Australia – to hold in our memory the smell and texture of life on Manus Island and on Nauru, the casual brutality, the mud, the barbed wire borders of their world, the erosion of time, the lies and sneers of politicians who held them there, the slogans that trumped human connection.

It is a time for shame and for compassion for a people who have come to this. To remember is first of all not to forget, not to move on. It is the beginning of conversion.

I pray for our continued conversion as people and as a nation.

Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is the Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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