National Week of Prayer and Action 2023 – Taking Advocacy and Action

In Conversation with Sister Brigid

I would not say that I had a ‘blinding light’ experience leading me to work with refugees. I began working with refugees because there was a need, and quite an obvious need.

I lived in Sunshine with the Brigidine Sisters, in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, for quite a long time following World War II, working as a teacher. Most of the people that survived the war that came to Australia were from Poland, Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. I was teaching in a school in West Sunshine, where many of the people had migrated to. Most of the people we met were women who were by this stage elderly. As we got to know these women, they would often share their stories with us; about walking through the snow to Russia, being captured by the Nazis, of being locked up. I was always fascinated by their stories and what was happening to people. Some of them had come as refugees, but while I was working there there were also people arriving from Hungary after the Hungarian revolution. Then Vietnamese refugees arrived towards the end of the seventies and early eighties. So as a person, I have always been fascinated by the movement of people, the displacement of people, why people have to move, and I have always been both outraged and depressed about it.

People are displaced from wars that go on all over the world, and they keep springing up. These are full-scale wars and revolutions of various kinds. And then, as a result, you have people moving – often while this is still occurring. So the displacement of people seems to be just a human phenomenon, which is very sad because inevitably the people who I think suffer most are actually women and children. Women and children do not make the decisions in wars and revolutions, but they are the ones who are displaced or have to move. And usually this is without adequate food and shelter. Most people actually move within their own country, while others move just over the border because they hope to go back home again. Nobody leaves their home thinking that they will never go back.

In the 2000s, around the beginning of people arriving from Iran and Afghanistan, I was involved in a justice group in Melbourne, and we eventually established a small project. We were all teachers, and many of us were Brigidine Sisters, but others were not but knew us also joined. Currently, the people we are supporting are those who arrived by boat in 2010-2013, who still do not have permanent residence, and those on temporary visas with no work or study rights. More recently we have also had a number of people from Uganda come to us for support.

In my experience, when people get to know an asylum seeker or a refugee, when they actually meet people who have fled persecution, they are usually very sympathetic and will help and be more open-minded.

The Bible is full of stories about a little wandering group of people who are often rejected by different places that they came to over and over again. The voice of God, Yahweh, the story that Yahweh is telling: to look after these people, including to look after the ‘stranger’. And the ‘stranger’ is a word for refugees. The story of the Israelites being rejected, but then eventually finding a promised and a chosen land – that is the story of the Bible. And other faiths have similar stories and messages. For myself, our core documents and what Pope Francis says are a lens to look at reality through as a guide. We all have a lens that we look through to guide us.

There is a commonality between people with different faiths and beliefs. Freedom to live means freedom for everyone to live how they want and where they want.

I think the whole idea of freedom is a really important concept for us to think about. I think we should always be thinking broadly about freedom when we are advocating for freedom for refugees. We may think of freedom as not being locked up – many of our asylum seekers were locked up for a long, indeterminate time. And that is criminal and immoral. We should not be locking people up who are escaping violence or oppression.

However, there is freedom that is beyond that, and that is the freedom to get on with your life. Freedom to make the ordinary choices that human beings think that they should be able to make. For example, to get married, have a job, to settle, to have a house or accommodation to live in, to have enough food to eat. Freedom from hunger, freedom from insecurity, freedom from homelessness – these are basic freedoms, they are basic rights.

One main focus as part of my work right now is just trying to keep a roof over refugees’ heads, enough food to eat and enough money to pay their rent and their bills. Just this morning, I received a message from a family that they have no food. I am particularly worried about the kids that we see not having any food. These are the people we see every day.

Asylum seekers are left in a state of insecurity because of the current drawn-out process of applying for protection. They have to wait years until they get a first interview. In many cases, having had that interview, they wait again for an answer. If they are rejected, they have to wait again to get a judicial appeal time. They have to wait again and again. And we are not talking about weeks, we are talking about years between each of these times. There are people who arrived in 2012 who still do not have an answer whether they can stay here or not.

We also need to bring those on Papua New Guinea to Australia. They have been there for years and years. We need to repeal mandatory detention. We need to bring back the people in Indonesia who are starving there.

Different people have done different things and at different times to raise awareness – and this is important in ensuring that we do not forget about these issues. If people forget about how we are mistreating asylum seekers, it is less likely that anybody in Canberra is going to do something about it. We need to keep this at the forefront of the attention of as many people who are making the decisions as possible. You have the right to go to your local member since this is a Commonwealth issue. You do not have to know a lot, you can just go to their office and express your concern that there are destitute people who are not getting any help. And we need symbolic action. We did circles of silence, people dressing in black to these events, turning up to a Palm Sunday walk.

I think we need to look after refugees to the extent that we can. This is especially important for churches and those who are in a position to speak out in advocating, but also in providing help for refugees that are destitute. I think it is important to be honest. Taking action at whatever level we can is being honest.

Sister Brigid Arthur is a long-time advocate for refugees and people seeking asylum, and for vulnerable members of the community. Sister Brigid has also been an educator and is part of the Brigidine Order of Nuns. She is a founding member of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project and a former long-term board member of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If you would like to support Sister Brigid and her tireless work and advocacy, visit the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project website to volunteer, donate or follow their activities here.