A Human Face on Asylum Seekers

The global refugee crisis could not have come at a worse time for them given the current fears fuelled by the recent terrorist activity world-wide. Indeed, earlier this week, One Nation Leader Senator Pauline Hanson wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to call for a return to policies from the Second World War for internment camps to be set up for those on terror “watch lists” who should be interned to neutralise their possible threat. While Australia does not have a specific ‘terror watch list’ there are ongoing terror investigations.

Last month Senator Hanson attempted to link terrorism to Middle Eastern refugees. She quizzed ASIO’s Director-General of Security, Duncan Lewis, asking, “Do you believe that the threat is being brought in possibly from Middle Eastern refugees that are coming out to Australia?” Mr. Lewis responded, “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest there’s a connection between refugees and terrorism.”

Amidst the fear that terrorist attacks ferment, the tragedy is we lose the human face of those who seek asylum in Australia or other countries around the world. In last month’s JPIC newsletter I shared the story about how Australian singer and song writer, Missy Higgins, was so moved by the story of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body, still in red T-shirt and shorts, was found lying face down on a beach in Turkey in September of 2015, that she wrote a song as an awareness raiser. The boy was among 23 migrants who Turkish naval officials said had set off in 2 small boats from the Bodrum peninsula in a failed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos, where thousands of migrants had arrived in those weeks.

It appears that his family may have been trying to reach Canada. In the June of that year, newspapers reported, Aylan’s family had been desperately trying to get permission to emigrate to Canada where the boy’s father, Abdullah’s sister lived in Vancouver, but their refugee application was rejected by Canadian authorities.

Missy Higgins first saw the photos while in her living room, nursing her newborn son. She was deeply shocked and overwhelmed by emotion, and realised she wanted to write about it. She wrote a song that tells the story of Aylan and his family’s escape told from the perspective of his father. The song, “Oh Canada,” and film clip are easily accessed on Youtube. Missy Higgins donated the profits from the song to the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre.

David Peter Folkes, an ex-Passionist from our province, on reading this story in our newsletter, wrote to me and shared with me a story he told on an ABC Darwin morning show, later it rebroadcast on ABC’s national Kathy Kelly show. He told this story on the ABC program wanting to put a human face on one refugee family in the hope that it might be a pebble into the pond of public opinion:

“It was in 2012, and I was visiting one of the Detention Centres each day.  St Vincent de Paul had a contract with the Federal Government Immigration Services to do humanitarian visits to a family detention centre, euphemistically called “The Darwin Airport Lodge.”  Eventually certain asylum seekers from that Centre were allowed to be accompanied to events in the community, like to attend church, concerts, cultural events and even Saturday market.

I had permission to accompany an Iranian family—father, mother, son (15) and young daughter (6) on a Saturday morning. We headed off to the Parap Market, where I hoped they would meet fellow Iranians, or at least other Persian or Arabic speakers. I described where we went and what we saw to the son, whose English was quite good, and he translated for the parents. They all loved seeing the rich variety of cultural life and food at the market, and the little girl was delighted to see the pretty beads and flowers.  She took my hand and danced along, jabbering excitedly all the time, as if I understood. She captured my heart right then and there. 

From there we went to the beachfront.  We all got out and looked back across the bay to the City of Darwin, on a beautiful crystal clear day.  The little girl played hopscotch (in Persian), and the parents sat on a rock under a tree quietly talking.

Then I saw the young boy, hanging his arms and torso over the fence, looking out to sea, quiet for a long time. I hung over the fence beside him, and eventually he pointed out to sea and whispered, “there are people in there.”  

I asked what he meant. 

“My Nephew is in there.”  Long pause. 

“When we left Malaysia, my mother’s family, two sisters, husband and four children were on the next boat. Three days ago they went down in a storm, and all were lost.  My nephew was 15.”  

“My closest friend is in there.” 

We hung some more.  I shoulder-hugged him, and we moved on.

On the way back, they wanted to look at a new car lot. Each posed for photos with their favourite, laughed and shared their dreams.

Last Summer, my fiancé and I travelled from our home in America to Australia, and spent quite some time in Darwin.  The camps were closed.  No more men.  No more women and children.  No more slivers of hope for the young families who must look for safe harbour on other shores.

Most mornings we walked to the beach, and looked out to sea, where—in too many places—too many people had been lost. It was, and is, unfathomable. But I can save room in my heart for one little family, four human faces, the imprint of a day that turned out to be the best day of my life.”



About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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