Ave Maria, it’s a girl!
Be like good Samaritan, says nun who helped refugee kids
By Johanna Bennett
“I would like to appeal to Catholics and Christians to read the story of the Good Samaritan and to ask themselves what that story actually means with regard to the refugee situation.”
So says Sr Brigid Arthur, the nun who accompanied the two young asylum seeker brothers to the British Consulate last week.
She asked that we think about the plight of asylum seekers and respond as Christians.
Sr Brigid said neither she nor the Brigidine order were part of any refugee network involved in the recent escapes from the Woomera detention centre in South Australia.
They had not been aware of the planning that saw Alamdar Bakhtiari, 14, and his brother Montazar, 12, taken to her in Collins St, Melbourne, with the request that she escort them to the consulate, where they appealed unsuccessfully for asylum.
Sr Brigid said she believes she was approached because the Brigidine Sisters are known to be sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, including those detained in Melbourne’s Maribyrnong detention centre and at Woomera.
It was because of this sympathetic approach that the Sisters set up the Brigidine Asylum Seekers project, which provides two houses as temporary homes to some of those on bridging visas.
The project is financially supported by the Sisters, although lately a number of sympathetic lay people have come forward to help shoulder the financial burden.
The Sisters also visit detainees at Maribyrnong. “And we try to report on asylum seekers’ rights in general,” says Sr Brigid, who is involved with the project.
The dedicated nun has been a Brigidine Sister for 40 years and has been a teacher and a school principal.
She said the boys had decided to approach the British Consulate themselves and she had been sent a message asking her to escort them, but knew nothing of how they had got to Melbourne from Woomera nor where they had been staying.
The boys had thought the British might treat them more kindly than Australia had.
However, the British Consulate rejected their plea for asylum.
Sr Brigid said she believed the boys were Afghanis – there have been claims they are Pakistani.
“Most people in the community who have had any dealings with the boys’ family, including Afghan families themselves – who are usually quick to point out imposters – believe they are Afghani and Hazara,” she said.
“I understand they spent some time in a Pakistani refugee camp, but that is normal.
“Their father claimed he was a herdsman in an area where Hazaras live. Hazaras were under threat long before the Taliban came to power.
“Because they are a minority group they have been persecuted by others in Afghanistan for a long time now.
“They are ethnically different. Afghanistan is still a tribal nation.”
Sr Brigid said she had the total support of her order and was concerned that “we seem to be losing sight of the fact that it is the right of people to seek protection in another country and Australia has agreed to this (under United Nations treaty)”.
She thought the refugees in Australia had shown “courage and resilience” in face of harsh treatment, but was concerned for the mental damage the children might suffer.
She called for refugees to be released into the community. There were hundreds - not millions – of them and they posed no harm.
The Sister said it took a lot to persuade people to abandon their homeland.
“People who have any chance of their own situation improving will stay in their own country,” she said.
“They come only because their situation is so desperate in their own country that they face torture and death.”
Sr Rosemary Joyce, the Victorian province leader of the Brigidine Sisters, said that the order had been running a project for the past 12 months providing housing and support for refugees released into the community on bridging visas.
She said the two boys had not been sheltered in a Brigidine convent as has been suggested.
But, she added, “we are deeply concerned about the plight of refugee asylum seekers in this country.
“As teachers we are appalled that children are being kept in detention and believe the future of these young people is being put in jeopardy.”
Bishop Pat Power, the secretary of the Australian Bishops’ Committee for Social Welfare, echoed the Brigidine Sisters’ concern, saying he was appalled at the mandatory detention of asylum seekers in “horrific conditions”.
“At our bishops’ conference in May, someone said that if animals were kept in such condition the RSPCA would close down the premises,” he said.
It was up to the Churches to speak out on behalf of the refugees, he said, as he thought the Government had dug itself into a hole on the issue and the Opposition seemed to hold the same point of view.
The bishop had earlier signed a statement with other Canberra clerics – Anglican Bishop George Browning and Baptist minister Thorwald Lorenzen – deploring the detention of children.
In it they said: “In a scale of moral priorities, there can hardly be a higher moral priority than the protection of children.
“Why should a country protect its borders, if it manifestly cannot protect children within those borders?”