Cathblog - At home with refugees


As I sat on the city bound bus I did what so many of us seem to do these days, I checked emails on my phone.

One was interesting.

Our parish worker had a pleading general email request for emergency housing for a refugee family of three for 'up to two weeks'. I showed the email to Linda, my wife, when we met up in the city prior to attending a swanky function.

We are empty nesters complete with three boomeranging young adult children, who have all moved out currently. In reality, we inhabit a small portion of a large family home, which also contains the office from which we operate our separate businesses.

'Let's do it,' we said, unsure what we might be heading into. It was around 5.30pm on a Tuesday evening.

I immediately phoned Trish, the parish worker. 'That's fantastic ... no one else has responded. I'll get in contact with Sr Ann.'  'So, you don't know the family, Trish?' 'No, the request has come through some of our outreach links.'

This was the first of many emerging developments.

Sr Ann, whom I knew, phoned about twenty minutes later. 'The caseworker from the Uniting Church Refugee Service will get onto you in the morning and things will work out from there.'

An ecumenical enterprise, I now surmised.

Early the next morning a Japanese caseworker phoned and explained the situation more fully in a challenging mixture of Australian/Japanese English. We gleaned that the family consisted of parents and a twenty-one-year-old son.

They had exited their country in haste by plane on tourist visas because there were serious and developing threats to their lives.

For the week prior to leaving they could not stay in their home as gunmen were seen visiting regularly. These were the 'heavies' of one of the ministers in the 'elected' government of their country, who we later found out was the same political persuasion as 'our family'.

In their country it appears unwise to question the operations of the 'elected' government, even if you are on the same side.

They left everything behind apart from what they could fit into a few suitcases. Their situation was so extreme that the Australian government was moving them to the next phase of the settlement process very quickly.

They had been in Australia around a month and their living conditions had been appalling, all sharing one room and suffering from some bullying and harassment from their hosts.

Could we take them today, after a suitable check of the accommodation and us? As it turned out they were about two kilometres away.

Within about an hour two female social workers arrived. They were so full of gratitude for what we had offered and for what we could provide - as yet we felt that we had done nothing.

The family would be moving into the upstairs area of our home, into two large bedrooms with a bathroom adjacent. The timing was not totally perfect as Linda was running an organic gardening and food workshop from home and I was in the midst of a major project for a client. But it turned out to be a 'felix culpa' (happy fault) that they arrived this day, about 18 hours after we said yes.

The social workers had to make two trips, as their small car could not contain the family and their meagre possessions. The mother arrived first. For important anonymity purposes let's call her Dev. I greeted her at the door.

She was short and dark with those listless eyes so often seen in people who are suffering from prolonged trauma or shock.

I welcomed her and showed her the family's accommodation as we helped the social workers move the possessions. Those dull eyes widened.

I then took her out onto the deck to Linda and the participants who were about to enter the food tasting phase of the workshop. Everyone greeted her warmly, with the most outrageous participant, a Canadian/Australian, insisting that I get some champagne to toast Dev's arrival. This was becoming more multi-cultural by the moment.

I greeted the father, Sam, and his son, Vin, on their arrival some thirty minutes later.  They, too, looked robbed of wellbeing and an appearance of positive disposition. 'Where is my wife,' he enquired caringly and protectively. 'She is drinking a glass of champagne with my wife and her friends,' I replied. His eyebrows rose inquisitively and a slight twinkle appeared briefly in his eyes behind the cataracts of listlessness and gloom.

I took Sam and Vin to the others after we moved the remaining chattels to their rooms. The social workers and I joined them to share the food and the remaining dregs of champagne and to re-toast the family's arrival.

We let them settle for the afternoon and then had a brief chat about how we might share the house together. We wrote out some agreed things so that they could assimilate it and seek any clarity with us or in their regular English classes. They loved our practise of eating a family meal together of an evening.

Our two Brisbane-based children called in later in the day to meet them. Our journalist daughter in London Skyped as soon as practical to welcome them and then twittered the universe about how proud she was of us. We felt that we had done very little but this appeared extraordinary to Gen 'whatever' networks.

The social workers were fantastic and we all monitored together how things were going.

Over time the family relaxed. They cooked, or the mother did. We learnt new food practices and eating styles and more about daily-lived Buddhism. Food and gardens were great points of mutuality and Linda's expertise as a horticulturist who specialises in organics was of great interest to Sam. He was missing his garden and enjoyed pottering around and watering ours - and still does.

One day he said, 'That banana tree is pregnant.' Linda has added this diagnosis to her former midwifery skills.

We enjoyed trying different foods and sitting at the table talking in the evenings.

We learnt so much about deprivation and hope, about leaving everything behind and in missing one's surrounds. Material things appear as less important than vistas, sounds, smells, food, family and friends. Our communion with others and our horizons are so important to the human psyche.

Our own family Sunday evening ritual 'muck in' meal became even more important.

Vin decided he would like to learn to cook after watching our son engage readily and proficiently in food preparation. He now saw it as 'cool' for a young man to cook, especially after watching and being encouraged to join in by an electrician/punk rock band member.

Our daughter wondered how she could expose her secondary students to this experience. Teachers are always looking for opportunities.

Our own and our kids' networks wanted to know how they could help. We were in the middle of a maelstrom of good will from ordinary folks in the suburbs, so far from what we see in the shock jocks and political responses to boat people or those seeking asylum here.

In truth this was a little confusing at times, especially given that verse in our national anthem, "For those who've come across the seas we've boundless plains to share." But it is in verse two and we rarely sing it.

But it was not totally smooth sailing. For example, two weeks after 'our family's' arrival, a nephew and his new wife appeared. We were a little concerned by this. They had been hunted down by the same minister's henchmen to reveal where 'our family' was. A gun had been held to the nephew's head.

They, too, had to escape suddenly, leaving everything behind including the dowry gift of a new house and a good position in an international bank.

Fortunately, some friends were able to help out even though one of them has entered into the final phases of a debilitating illness. This again shows the unbridled goodness of others when called upon.

To prevent our refugee family becoming too comfortable, which was on the cards, we agreed with the social workers and them to place a time limit on living with us.Eventually they found a place to rent not that far from us and on a bus route that links to a major shopping centre.

I was amazed at how groups like St Vinnie's (especially through local volunteers), Red Cross and so forth gear into action and so collaboratively. We have learnt so much through the refugee networks, a whole world beyond our comfortable and reasonably self-indulgent urban existence.

Our own friends, particularly those who have moved from overseas or from interstate and know the experience of starting again in a 'foreign land', have provided so many things such as beds, a television and a microwave. We all seem to accumulate so much stuff.

The two young males have jobs, not ones that are relevant to their university qualifications and work experiences but they craved the dignity that work can often provide. It means that financial support from the government or other agencies reduces accordingly. The dad will not be able to work because of his age and health.

Many are assisting the two women to 'break in' somewhere. It is hard. There remains, despite all of the good will I referred to above, hesitancy by some employers in welcoming the stranger.

'Our family' was with us for more than four weeks. We are friends for life. Strangely we feel we have benefitted so much more than them from the whole unfolding experience.

In reality we offered them our presence and a safe haven for a time, some rooms we no longer use and then some chattels we do not need.

They opened up a deeper experience for us, that of being grateful for the present moment and for opportunities that arise, and to value life's preciousness and our encounters with one another.

Damien BrennanDamien F. Brennan is a consultant and writer and provides leadership development services primarily to education, welfare, Church and not-for profit sectors.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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