CAPSA in Action – using your TIME

TIME with People Seeking Asylum 

by Sr Veronica McDougall sgs

Since 2015 I have been privileged in various ways and places to spend time with people seeking asylum in NSW. My main focus has been teaching English to adults and helping their children with schoolwork.

As a retired teacher, I have a strong desire to help people seeking asylum to have a voice. They need English – to communicate generally and for so many tasks we take for granted. English, both oral and written, even initially, is needed for submitting documentation to governments, and then for finding employment, negotiating Centrelink, communicating with schools and finding housing. In some cultures, women especially have not gained literary skills in their first language, so it is more challenging to learn English but it is vital, and constant support is needed.

I lived for five years in a poor area of The Philippines and tried to learn their dialect so I could communicate with the market sellers and the Kinder School parents and children. They appreciated my efforts to understand them. It taught me that it is not just learning words and grammar, but includes understanding idioms and meaning. Consequently, I have empathy for people trying amidst all their complicated lives to learn English with all its difficulties.

Until COVID, I was volunteering at Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), taking individuals and groups for Practical English which involved conversations and some basic grammar. Really it included whatever they needed at the time such as: what to do and say at a Medical Centre or hospital, shopping, school newsletters, public transport. The mix of different cultures meant that we all shared and learnt from one another about customs and the homelands they left behind. Other opportunities for helping people seeking asylum involved form filling before lawyer meetings, and applications for transport cards and Foodbanks.

My other main involvement is with the Catholic South Sudanese Community. Over time I have taught small English classes, written legal letters, filled out various forms for visas, passports, housing applications, job descriptions and boarding school applications and whatever else is needed. I have also assisted Anna, the Pastoral Care Leader, with her academic studies. English is her fourth language after two Sudanese Dialects and Arabic, none of which is much like English. Having journeyed through the experience of seeking asylum she is now a much-valued Australian citizen. I am offering similar help to other members of her community if needed for university studies.

Time allows me to work alongside people seeking asylum, and walk with them as they find freedom and peace. In many ways, as a nation we have made their journey to asylum very difficult, seeing them as a political problem.  They are human beings who talk and share, who cook meals and eat together, who are working hard to find their voice and find their place in our society.

The time I spend, and the small part I play supporting them in this, gives me life and joy!