In an effort to inform people of the plight of refugees, St Joseph’s Campus, Lochinvar, teacher, Michael Eccleston, is embarking on a Refugee Awareness Run from Aberdeen to Mayfield this month.

During the five-day run, he will visit five of the 56 Catholic schools in Maitland-Newcastle, to put into context the three-week, two-day journey Sierra Leone refugee and CatholicCare Refugee Services (CCRS) Project Officer, John Sandy, took to make a phone call to his wife.

“Late last year, I was looking to volunteer my time at the CCRS in Mayfield, a place of welcome and support for refugees and their families, and when visiting the centre, I met John Sandy,” says Michael.

“Struck by John’s generosity of spirit and his harrowing story, I learnt more about the CCRS, which then led me to attend the social justice launch at St Columban’s Primary School, Mayfield.”

From this day, Michael knew he needed to bring his students (then at St Joseph’s High School, Aberdeen), up to speed about the plight of the marginalised, and in particular the plight of refugees.

“During this time, I was the Year 8 student co-ordinator and I wanted to create a more selfless student body and believed focusing on the plight of the marginalised would support this,” says Michael.

“This also tied in perfectly to Catholic social teachings, and in particular, the religion topic the class was learning, Called to Act Justly.”

“Never in my wildest dreams, however, would I have anticipated the learning that would follow as a result of the relationship between St Joseph’s and CCRS.”

Last October, 21 of Michael’s students were rewarded with a Social Justice excursion to CCRS to build upon their knowledge of the issues studied in class. The students met with John and Co-ordinator, Tania Kelland, who works with refugees in the community, and she gave the students a great account of their ‘real life’ struggles as they try to settle in to a new life.

Visiting Year 8 student, Breanna Cox, was touched by John’s story, explaining, “Listening to John made me realise just how lucky I am and how fortunate I am. 

“John’s story had something special, something I have never experienced before. I am so grateful for people like this to bring me back to reality,” said Breanna.

The St Joseph’s students were so inspired by John and his key messages of “nobody chooses to be a refugee” and “be grateful for what you have”, that the discussion amongst the students turned to, “What are we going to do next?” Following the excursion, the students decided more needed to be done, and in December, a second trip to CCRS was organised.

“Once back at school, the students started brainstorming ideas for the future,” says Michael.

“The students decided to donate presents for the Syrian refugees who we anticipated would be arriving at Christmas. The presents were a mix of essential items, soccer balls, new clothes, children’s toys, and one of our Lebanese students translated the welcome cards into Arabic.”

The true demonstration of the students’ commitment came on the day they wrapped some 200 presents.

“It was 44 degrees in the Denman Basketball Stadium (where we wrapped the presents), and not one student whinged because they realised they have a lot to be grateful for,” says Michael.

“This was a particularly special day for me as this is something which was not possible for many of these students prior to the work with the marginalised, so I was very proud of them.”

Following this experience and seeing the growth of his students, Michael wanted to share this with students across the diocese, and so the idea of the Refugee Awareness Run was born. The aim of the run is to share the experience and contextualise the three weeks and two days John walked to make a phone call, something we take for granted.

“The run is not even 10% of the distance John covered, yet many people will think it is a long way from Aberdeen to Newcastle,” says Michael.  

“I am hoping the #3weeks2days experience will humanise the plight of refugees which is often politicised with a large focus on negativity. My dream is to help John to be seen as not only a refugee but an awesome person, great social worker and loving husband.”

“As you can see, I am very passionate about the plight of the marginalised,” says Michael.

“In the words of St Mary MacKillop, ‘never see a need without doing something about it’ is something John and Tania have helped keep at the forefront of my mind.”

CatholicCare Social Services Hunter-Manning Director, Helga Smit, said, “CatholicCare is buoyed that following his visit, with students of St Joseph’s Aberdeen, to CCRS, Michael was inspired to instigate the #3weeks 2days Refugee Awareness Run. The team of staff and volunteers at CCRS continues to work tirelessly with refugees, to empower them to become part of our community. Michael’s run will promote awareness and raise funds for our work, for which we are very grateful.”

On his Refugee Awareness Run, Michael will be visiting St Joseph’s High School, Aberdeen; St Catherine’s Catholic College, Singleton; St Joseph’s High School, Lochinvar; St Peter’s High School, Maitland and San Clemente, Mayfield. His journey will begin on Friday, 17 June and finish on Tuesday, 21 June.

For more information about Michael’s Refugee Awareness Run or to be involved through running, organising or donating to the cause, visit www.catholiccare.org.au. You can read more about John Sandy’s journey online

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Alyssa Faith

Alyssa Faith was the Communications Manager for the Catholic Schools Office, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle from 2016 - 2017 and a regular contributor to Aurora and mnnews.today.

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