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Trailblazer Tresa Diing shows how following God’s call never gets old

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Clemente program ACU - The Catholic weekly
Tresa Diing on her graduation day. Photo: Supplied.

Trailblazing matriarch Tresa Diing has an impressive list of “firsts” to her name. She’s one of the first Sudanese refugees to arrive in Australia, she was the first pastoral care coordinator employed for her community by the Archdiocese of Sydney, and the first female Minister for Agriculture appointed to her home city in the newly-independent South Sudan.

Now the 64-year-old is the first South Sudanese woman to graduate from Australian Catholic University’s Clemente certificate program in liberal arts for people who face multiple barriers to university education.

Tresa juggled her work as a disability support carer and studies with caring responsibilities for her husband, mother, and 13-year-old grandson who has autism. Much of it while suffering from chronic back pain herself.

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Beginning with a group of 21 students, Tresa was one of only four graduates of the Clemente program on 16 May.

“I have always valued education as the key to life. I always encouraged people to study and I’m not going to say something that I’m not going to do myself, even though it was hard,” Tresa said.

“I had a dream of furthering my education and I was not going to give up.”

Tresa was working full time when she commenced her studies, rising early to see her first client at 5am before classes, and then returning to work from 3-7pm before finally returning home to see what needs were waiting for her there.

“Sometimes I just pushed through even though I was tired, and I said, ‘Thank you God, Lord Jesus you are the only one who gives me strength to do this, without you I cannot do anything,” Tresa smiled.

“The word of God kept me going.”

Tresa has form in doing hard things in the power of her strong faith.

Clemente program ACU - The Catholic Weekly
Tresa with friends who worked together to establish the St Bakhita Centre. Photo: Supplied

Originally a farmer in Aweil in South Sudan, Tresa married Arthur Akuien Chol, who became a senior politician during the country’s long second civil war that began in 1983.

The family moved to Egypt, where Arthur worked as a diplomat and Tresa volunteered for the church.

When their visas expired, they were cast out by the Sudanese government as suspected rebels and lived in uncertainty for several years until Australia accepted them as refugees.

Tresa arrived in Sydney in late 1998 with their six children, her younger sister and niece, not knowing a soul. Arthur joined his family later.

The first thing they wanted to do was connect with the Catholic Church, but it took some months until they were able to orient themselves.

“We were the first group of Sudanese as Catholics in Sydney and we didn’t know what to do, we were given accommodation by the Church of Christ, and when we asked for a Catholic church they said there isn’t one around,” Tresa said.

A chance encounter with Sr Maria Sullivan RSJ set Tresa on a path to employment in 2003 as the Archdiocese of Sydney’s first pastoral coordinator for Sudanese, with support from Bishop David Cremin and Cardinal George Pell.

“I didn’t want other people to have to go through what we did,” she said of helping hundreds of refugee families start a new life in Sydney.

Bishop Cremin also made a special appeal through The Catholic Weekly for the establishment of a loan fund to help Sudanese families stuck in limbo in Egypt or in refugee camps to reach Australia.

Prior to that, Sudanese families in Egypt or in refugee camps had been forced to let humanitarian visas lapse because they could not afford the airfares.

Tresa’s advocacy also led to support for the newly-arrived Sudanese parents to have their children, often of large families and without the means to pay for fees or uniforms, provided with a Catholic education in the archdiocese.

Clemente program ACU - The Catholic Weekly
Tresa Diing with her family on her graduation day. Photo: Supplied.

Her pastoral care work formed the basis of the St Bakhita Centre, which today is based in Homebush West.

Until 2008 she worked full time at the centre with volunteers and support from the community overseeing English language, computer literacy and sewing classes and Bible study groups, and other works of pastoral care.

“I did a certificate in community service while I was doing that and classes were at night so I’d get up early, prepare my kids for school, drop them off and go straight to St Bakhita’s,” said Tresa.

“I’d finish at 5pm and either go home or straight to TAFE until 10pm. When I finished I asked myself, how did I do that? But if I decide to do something I never give up.”

Tresa has returned to South Sudan several times, including when she was appointed Aweil’s Minister for Agriculture in 2016.

“I was minister for two years and they had no money to give me, only a car, but I was grateful because I was there with my people and I was so happy to support them and show how they could run a successful farm and not waste their resources,” she said.

Tresa says she has learnt a lot from the Clemente program, and loved its units on history, ethics and international relations.

“It has made me reflect on my own personal history,” she said.

“Now I want to use everything I’ve learned in this course in my disability support work and to continue to volunteer. Even though I am getting old I can still help my community with my knowledge and experience.

“My community now is not just the South Sudanese community—Australia is our second home and anyone in need here is my community.

“There is still a lot I can do. The Lord tells us to love one another and we have to obey his voice and do what he would like us to do.”

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