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……..For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share……

I met a wonderful nun recently who works with refugees and we were both despairing about the children on Nauru situation and she was telling me some wonderful stories about refugees who she has helped in her work. I asked her to write some down for me. I feel so many Aussies don’t have contact with refugees and so when there is negative diatribe from the papers, the shock jocks and politicians trying to stir up fear and hatred, it is easy for the general public to follow along without questioning the truth of the comments.

I have watched many an ABC show on the wonderful contribution many refugees have made to Australia and particularly outback Australia and have seen whole towns rally together to make representations to Immigration Ministers on behalf of different refugees to prevent their deportation.

Refugee success story in Toowoomba

Here are some of her stories to make you stop and think about how much refugees may have to offer our great big brown land.

  • In the early nineties among those refugees who arrived in Brisbane was an Eritrean woman who had been a guerrilla fighter in her country’s war to gain independence from Ethiopia.

Her close friend here at that time, however, was actually an Ethiopian woman forced to flee her country with her youngest child. For these two, hostilities abroad were not to be entertained here.

This Eritrean woman is an outstanding leader in her community and more widely among women from many African nations. She has shown great resilience, imagination and determination over so many years. From early on she has worked to help immigrants settle into their new home. She heeded a later request to help women find work. In her words: I asked myself what was the one skill that so many of these women bring with them and that could help them succeed? Cooking!”

She set up a restaurant in 2004 called Mu’ooz Restaurant and also provided training in hospitality for such women preparing them for future work. Over 150 women have passed through the course. Her restaurant is a popular meeting place for many groups – the next will be an occasion for refugees and others in the community to meet and to share over a meal through the Welcome Dinner movement. The restaurant also caters for outside events.

She believes that everyone wants the same thing for themselves and their families – to have peace, to be loved and accepted.

Food preparation at Mu’ooz

  • Her friend from Ethiopia had been forced to leave behind her husband and three older children when she fled to a neighbouring country with her baby. This child began school here in suburban Brisbane. The struggle then was how to reunite the family from whom she had been separated for around six years. Her husband had meantime died. When official permission was given for the children to come, the next hurdle was finding the money for the fares. The primary school her son attended was approached and took on the task of helping to raise the funds.  The teenage son had meanwhile taken off at this critical time and had to be found. When the mother who prayed nightly for hours was asked how she found the boy, she replied: I didn’t find him, God did. Finding him happened in part through the help of an Australian religious Sister running a health clinic in their town.

A very excited boy featured on the ABC breakfast programme of the time telling how his school had succeeded in raising the money and announcing the imminent arrival of his fellow pupil’s brothers and sisters. Out to the airport went a welcoming party – mother looking, as someone remarked, like the Queen of Sheba in the stunning white, gold trimmed national dress, along with the youngest child, the school principal and several others. It was a happy, tearful occasion.

  • Poignantly among those welcoming the three children arriving from Ethiopia was another mother with her child from Tigray. As I looked at her, I saw a mixture of emotions – happiness for her friend but pain that her own partner was still far away. Eventually he was able to join her. As an eight year old, their daughter was prone to correcting her mother’s English and when reminded  that her mother spoke two languages (it was actually three) declared very authoritatively : It’s not important to speak the language where you come from but only to speak the language here!

The family now with two boys born in Brisbane, moved to Melbourne where the mother received an award from the top hotel where she works as the best employee over all levels of staff. When reminded many years later of her earlier comment, the daughter immediately conceded: ‘Yeah, sounds like me’ and went on with composing the valedictory address she was chosen to deliver at her High School’s Speech Night. Now with a degree in media,  she is studying international affairs and working in the Immigration Department.

  • Many of those forced to flee Afghanistan are from the persecuted ethnic minority, the Hazara who have been pushed into the least productive parts of their country where living is hard. Several school-age boys came as ‘unaccompanied minors’ sent by their parents to escape the clutches of the Taliban.

An English teacher at their Migrant School in Brisbane decided to form a soccer team to provide these boys, including other Kurdish, Iraqi and Sudanese members, who had no family support here and who often didn’t even know how or where their family members were, with a community. The Tiger 11 Football  team was born. As well as fulfilling their desire to succeed on the field, the boys made wonderful contacts with other young people as well as older citizens, many of whom did not know or even care about refugees and their uncertain situation as temporary visa holders.

As the manager of the nearby sporting club that the English teacher first approached for assistance and who kick-started the team’s endeavours remarked:

‘Well I was of the opinion that the boats should be turned around or even that they should be shot at … but then I had never actually met a refugee.’

In case you are wondering where the verse originates at the beginning of this blog- that is from the second verse of the Australian anthem – Advance Australia Fair.

Thank you to Sister Genevieve who wrote the stories. I wish we could all understand the stories behind the people. We might all feel more compassion.