I have been asked to speak about my experience with refugees, as a Christian. It is my Christian faith which motivates me to work with refugees, and those less fortunate than myself. I am a part of this Catholic Parish of St. Brendan’s, Shepparton.
In our wonderful country of Australia, refugees are not new. The first people of Australia, the Aborigines, became refugees in the country which they had occupied for thousands of years, when white men came and took over their lands. They are now very accepting of all refugees. My own ancestors left Ireland in 1854 to come to Australia because of the potato famine in Ireland. They became farmers. In the area where I grew up, where my great grandfather settled – in the Yarra Valley – I mixed with immigrants from Holland and ltaly. I also have a brother-in-law who was a refugee from Croatia.
I moved to Shepparton in 1969, and found this area with many Italians, Albanians and Greeks who have settled in the area and become successful business people and farmers. Through my work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, in 1999, we had a lot to do with the Iraqi people who were asylum seekers fleeing war in their country. They came with nothing; many arriving by boat. The St. Vincent de Paul Society was able to supply them with furniture, bedding and food in the early days. The furniture was all second hand, and not always so great, but it was all we had, and we did the best we could.
I visited many Iraqi homes, and was always made most welcome, and I was invited to a wedding many years ago. These people have now settled well into the area. The St Vincent de Paul Society have also helped people from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since coming to Shepparton, I also have friends from Sri Lanka, Romania, India and Nigeria.
The day the first Congolese refugees arrived in Shepparton in October 2005, Monsignor Peter Jeffrey – who was our Parish Priest at the time – rang and asked if I’d like to meet the first family, Adam and Judith Kitungano and their 5 children. They moved in to an old house owned by the church, which is now the Notre Dame College school uniform shop. I consider this family to be good friends. Their next child was nearly born in my car, but that was another story.
For this family, and most of the Congolese families, they had been in refugee camps for up to 10 years, with just very basic supplies. Coming into a house with electricity and gas – and all modern equipment that goes with it – gave them a lot to learn.
In those early days, TAFE had the contract to settle these families in, and they did a great job. They allocated a volunteer to each family to help them with everyday problems. Some of these volunteers stayed longer than others. Because so many of those early families were Christians, most of the children were booked in to St. Brendan’s and Notre Dame College.
St. Brendan’s school also allocated a volunteer mother to each family to show them how to pack a school lunch, and which uniform to wear each day, ie., normal uniform or sports uniforms. I worked on my own as a volunteer, under the umbrella of St. Brendan’s church, but was able to access clothes and extra bedding for all the new arrivals from the Vinnies Shop.
I was around when the vacuum cleaner wouldn’t work, usually because the hose was blocked, or the families did not know how to empty the dirt out. I have helped people to buy mowers for their lawns, and these caused a few headaches in the early days. As they started to buy cars, I was often called on to show them how to change a tyre, or to start a car with a flat battery. I mended quite a few bike punctures, I helped many new arrivals with driving practice on the way to getting a drivers licence. I am still a Mentor with the L2P driving programme, and I have helped several young Africans to get their hours up before they could go for their Licence. I have continued to visit many of the Congolese families, but I have not been able to keep up with all the new arrivals over the past 3 or 4 years. I hope that the families who have been here for a few years will continue to help the new arrivals.
When the Sudanese brought themselves to Shepparton, mainly because of farm work and other work opportunities, I also got very involved with many of these families, helping them in various ways. I have had several different Africans stay in my house from time to time to help them out. I often get called on to help fill in forms, or to apply for jobs, or, on occasions to attend a meeting at school.
Most of the Africans in Shepparton have done very well, with being employed, or doing extra study, and the younger ones are now going on to University or TAFE. And several have moved in to their own homes over the last few years.
There is rarely a day that I am not in touch with at least one African family. I visit their homes, and they visit mine. I call them my friends. I have been to weddings, funerals, Baptisms. I am a Godmother to several African children.
I would encourage any Australians here today, to reach out to these people and get to know them. They would love to visit an Australian family, or to have an Australian family visit them.
If I was an emotional person, I would have cried buckets of tears when I hear some of the very sad stories they have to tell. They are amazing how they just get on with life and make the most of the opportunities in this wonderful country of ours. All my work with the refugees and the St Vincent de Paul is volunteer work. It is very rewarding and I feel God blesses me for it.
On Monday, at the launch of World Refugee Week, thanks to the Council who sponsored an amazing event at the African house, I – and many others – witnessed an engaging presentation called Bujkeh in which three professional dancers acting out the events in the life of a refugee. Last night, again sponsored by the Council, there was a very moving film night about the millions of refugees worldwide.
Thanks to Shepparton for welcoming the refugees we have here, and the others who are arriving.
World Refugee Day
St Brendan’s Church
20 June 2019