Newsletter 12: 27 August 2019

Dear Colleagues

Most who have worked in Catholic schools can speak of experiences with families and children new to Australia. This past week, the Australian Catholic Church has placed a purposeful focus on Migrants and Refugees. Recalling Pope Francis’ words,

the presence of migrants and refugees – and of vulnerable people in general – is an invitation to recover some of those essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity that risk being overlooked in a prosperous society. That is why it is not just about migrants. When we show concern for them, we also show concern for ourselves, for everyone; in taking care of them, we all grow; in listening to them, we also give voice to a part of ourselves that we may keep hidden because it is not well-regarded nowadays.¹

Many would remember the upheaval centred around the Cronulla riots in Sydney, December 2005. At the time, I had the privilege of being Principal of Holy Spirit College, Lakemba, a coeducational secondary school of approximately 1100 students. The suburb of Lakemba and those surrounding it were at that time, and continue to be, home for many recent migrants and refugees. Among the students, 97% spoke a language other than English at home. Nine out of 10 of the parents were born overseas, hailing from 73 different countries.

The anger of “the mob” at the Cronulla riots was directed at minority groups and especially those in NSW Police parlance, “of middle eastern appearance”. In the days following the riot there were a few acts of violence directed at Catholic Schools in the southwest of Sydney and I recall a general feeling of fear in the community. In one instance, bullets were fired into the front of a Primary school one evening.

It was not until after the Christmas holidays that the impact of those turbulent few weeks became clearer to me. As the students returned from their holidays, their joy at being back at school was obvious to all the staff. It quickly became apparent that a number of families had felt so anxious due to the rhetoric of hate and the violence based on race, they had chosen to not venture too much away from their own houses. The usual trips to the local swimming pools or a day at the beach had not happened or were far less frequent.

As the new school year commenced, in conversations with parents at the time, the memorable sentiment among them was gratitude. Whilst conscious of the uncertainty and effects of the discord in the broader community, collectively we had not understood the depth of feeling among our migrant and refugee families. The sincerity of their expressions of gratitude were humbling and to a degree perplexing. Our understanding of their appreciation was best realised in a statement from one mother who simply said,

"We are grateful to the teachers because they are Australians who make us feel this is our home too."

Father Frank Brennan SJ, made the following reflections for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Reiterating Pope Francis’ insistence that ‘It is not just about migrants’, Fr Brennan suggests,

“How we welcome migrants and refugees affects all of us and helps to shape the sort of society we want to be, and the sort of people we want to be. We cannot establish God’s kingdom here and now, but we can do more to make our homes, our local community, and our nation more welcoming to those who come to our shores. Continuing to enjoy the fruits and benefits of secure and peaceful lives in our homes in the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit, let’s open our hearts and take some extra practical steps individually and collectively to provide a home for those who deserve more than the closed door of our fear and isolation. Let’s always call to mind what it would be like for us if we were on the other side of the door, knocking, or if we were on the other side of the national border, pleading. Remember, in the kingdom of God ‘some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last”. ²

Among our Marist schools we have scores of migrant and refugee families, who due to the generous daily work of teachers and school leaders, feel a sense of welcome and importantly experience belonging. May we Marists continue to strengthen in word and action, our response to the call of Jesus with our most vulnerable neighbours.

1. Message from His Holiness Pope Francis, the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019.

2. Homily Reflection by Fr Frank Brennan SJ for Migrant and Refugee Sunday 2019 Sunday, 25 August 2019

Sally Dillon