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Community rallies to support new wave of Latin American migrants

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Isela Caicedo and Fr Delmar Silva CS, at front, run a packed seminar to help international students navigate Australian government bureaucracy. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff
Isela Caicedo and Fr Delmar Silva CS, at front, run a packed seminar to help international students navigate Australian government bureaucracy. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff

Hardworking priests could be forgiven for putting their feet up on their birthday, but Fr Delmar Silva CS has barely had time for a slice of cake before he’s in front of an overhead projector screen, teaching Latin American international students how to register for a tax file number.

Crammed into the small parish office, students and young professionals—some of whom have spent only a few weeks or even days in Australia—eat pizza and try to find their feet in their new home.

The seminar is one of a raft of new initiatives that the Latin American Catholic community in Sydney are offering to new arrivals, after three students tragically took their own lives in January due to the rising cost of living and heartsickness.

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“It’s not only lack of food and work, knowing the language, but they were really struggling with their own feelings,” Fr Delmar told The Catholic Weekly after the Spanish-language Mass on Saturday 29 April, held at St Michael’s, Hurstville.

“We created a group just to support them, a network of psychologists and social workers, because we’ve had a sad situation.

“Being Colombian, of course I couldn’t be indifferent to my people coming to this country.”

The community has rallied together for food relief, chipping in to help pay new arrivals’ rent, and to set them up with jobs as cleaners, babysitters, and in restaurants. After Mass, food parcels were handed out to students.

The project started a month ago, is already attracting several dozen new arrivals, and is continuing to grow.

The need is also growing, as the numbers of Latin American Catholics in Australia swell with new arrivals.

Colombia was the number one country of departure for new Catholic migrants to Australia at the 2021 census, with Brazil and Argentina also in the top five.

The political and economic situation back home is dire; Colombia suffers from crippling levels of corruption and violence, in no small part because of drug cartels and paramilitary forces.

It is the deadliest country on Earth for anti-corruption and human rights advocates, with 186 murdered in 2022—more than three times the number killed in the next worst country, Ukraine.

Australia is seen as a “dream” for Colombian migrants, most of whom are middle-class, said Isela Caicedo, co-ordinator of the international students’ support group.

“The security: that’s what’s missing in our countries,” she told The Catholic Weekly.

“Beautiful countries, but corruption and insecurity is so high. That’s why many people left, because they’re not feeling safe.”

Ms Caicedo left Ecuador 27 years ago; her brother also left the country and arrived in Australia in the last fortnight.

While her family and the broader community are supportive, the language, food, people, time zone difference and sheer distance have made it hard to settle.

Mrs Caicedo works at a bank and organises the support group in her spare time. “You won’t believe the messages I receive,” she said.

“’I come because I need food, it’s hard to find a job, I’ve run out of money for food.’ It’s really heartbreaking sometimes,” she said.

“Some others they call and say, ‘I lost somebody from my family.’ I say, ‘I’m going to ask Father to call you.’

Fr Delmar Silva CS blesses international students at a Spanish-language Mass held at St Michael’s, Hurstville, on Saturday 29 April. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff
Fr Delmar Silva CS blesses international students at a Spanish-language Mass held at St Michael’s, Hurstville, on Saturday 29 April. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff

“‘You come to this country, welcome, you have great opportunities—but what about my heart?’ We’re working on those things too.”

Ms Caicedo introduced The Catholic Weekly to two recently-arrived Colombians, Dorys Maria Gomez and Victor Rojas—with another organiser of the support group, Johana Diaz, translating from Spanish.

Ms Gomez, a former professor of business and systems at the University of the Llanos, arrived in Australia in September last year after suffering a personal tragedy in Colombia.

She has two daughters who have remained in Colombia and hopes to bring them to Australia for a better future, and has entrusted her life into the hands of God and the Virgin Mary.

She hopes to study her doctorate and continue teaching, but without better English skills worries she will struggle professionally.

The Catholic community has been a great support, with “many angels,” but she would appreciate more English-language help from the church.

“In my case, for example, I need a lot of practice in English. Oh my God, it’s very difficult for me,” she said.

“Maybe a study practice, maybe a person-to-person … My level is intermediate. At the moment, maybe I understand if you speak for me slowly. I’m a Colombian Indian speaking English!” Ms Gomez said, laughing.

Victor Rojas arrived in Australia only a month ago, and is a qualified industrial engineer. Even with his skills, finding work in Colombia is difficult.

He’s come to Australia where he hopes there will be more opportunities to use his degree, but is surprised by the cost of living—transport in particular.

He also needs support with English, and both he and Ms Gomez worry they will have to compete with other Spanish-speaking migrants for jobs.

But amidst all their struggles, there is also time for joy. Hurstville’s Spanish-language Mass has been a home base for waves of new migrants for 25 years, and on 19 May will hold a gala dinner to celebrate their thriving community.

Orlando and Miriam Godinez, from El Salvador, petitioned for the first Mass to be held in 1998, while Mr Godinez was helping the church with accountancy work.

He collected 50 signatures and found a Spanish-speaking priest; in 2023 the parish church is full on a Saturday night, with singing, guitars, tambourines, babies in prams and young men praying in the aisles.

“Now it’s multicultural, you can see: Argentina, Chile, Equador, Colombia, Venezuela, even Italy!” Mr Godinez said.

“They are coming here, and we are helping them to understand tax, superannuation, health. Fr Delmar is helping them, it’s an initiative of his to help them.”

Photographing the Mass from the choir loft as Fr Silva invited the international students to stand before the altar and receive his blessing, while the congregation prayed with arms outstretched, the community seemed an icon of the synodal church dreamed of by the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

“We share the joys and the pains of our people, and we try to journey with them,” Fr Silva said.

“They become evangelisers, you know? That’s what I was preaching: with all this synodality, let us journey together, today is the feast of the Good Shepherd, let us take care of one another, follow the Good Shepherd.

“There are many temptations as well—they can go anywhere—but it’s good that they come. Seek first the Kingdom of God—they believe that!”

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