Refugees from diverse backgrounds shared their stories with the close to 400 students from Sydney Catholic high schools who gathered at Southern Cross Catholic Vocational College for a social justice day on November 18.
Discussion and workshops focused on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ 2015- 2016 social justice statement – For those who’ve come across the seas – justice for refugees and asylum seekers – and ways students could take action within their school communities to offer support.
Archdiocesan Youth Ministry Coordinator Mark Smith said the event allowed every student who attended to learn what it was like to seek asylum in Australia from those who had fled conflict in countries including Afghanistan and Iraq. The five guest speakers were from the Refugee Council of Australia’s Face-to-Face program, which employs and empowers people with refugee backgrounds to tell their stories in a way that is fair and preserves their dignity. The students also met young members of refugee advocacy group ChilOut.
“That was a key part of the day because we didn’t want to just talk about the issue, we wanted to have a personal account from the people who had lived it,” Mr Smith said. “It personalises things. It’s not just about facts and figures, it’s about real people.
“Latifa shared her story of fleeing Afghanistan and the Taliban. It was very powerful.
“The students had a lot of questions. She told her story as a lot of facts and the students were asking ‘how did that feel?’ It was interesting that the questions were on more of a personal level. They had connected with the story.”
People more or less think of refugees and asylum seekers as boat people. They don’t know is that it is actually very difficult for them to get on the boat. They are risking their lives for freedom.
Refugee Council president Phil Glendenning delivered the keynote address. He told students they were leaders of the future and also had a role to play now, including to raise awareness among their peers.
Year 9 student at Holy Spirit Catholic College Lakemba Charbel Ishak said the day was a great opportunity to meet other people and talk about a topic he cared about.
“I met a guy who was actually in a detention centre, and it took him four and a half years to be let out into Australia freely,” he said. Another woman – we called her Mia because her full name was very long – talked to us about why it is happening, how we can change it, and what we can do to contribute to that change.
“My family I wouldn’t say really know what is happening outside of these shores. I want to discuss it with them and get them to understand the changes that need to be made, because there are events taking place that are extremely horrific.”
De La Salle Catholic College Ashfield Year 10 student Rafael Candelario, 16, said he found the day intriguing. He heard Shokufa Tahiri from Afghanistan share her story. Her family fled the Taliban in 1998 and applied for asylum in Australia in 2006. She has completed a Bachelor of Law/ Economics at Western Sydney University.
“People more or less think of refugees and asylum seekers as boat people,” Rafael said. “What they don’t know is that it is actually very difficult for them to get on the boat. They are risking their lives for freedom, or the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“The day gave me a better insight about refugees and asylum seekers and what I could do as a student from a high school to change everyone else’s perspective on this topic.”
St Clare’s College Waverley Year 11 student Hannah Williams, 16, said she had learnt the difference between an asylum seeker and refugee. The first is a person seeking asylum in Australia, while a refugee has been granted asylum in the country or on Nauru. Hannah and her peers heard Ali, originally from Afghanistan, talk about his three years in detention on Nauru.
“I found it really eye-opening. He talked a lot about the detention centre and how he actually saw people sew the lips shut, and go on a hunger strike for weeks where they wouldn’t eat or drink. He spoke of how his older brother did it and actually fainted after three weeks. He talked about how they had to take him to the hospital and how with limited medical attention there he still refused to eat and drink.
“I don’t have siblings, but I thought ‘what if my parents chose to take a stand and do that?’ I don’t know how I’d react if that happened to my role model, or how I’d feel about myself if I wasn’t doing it too.”
“He was there between 2001 and 2004. In those years I was still in primary school and I really thought about the differences in what I was doing at that time and how they were treated.”
Hannah said she would take her newfound awareness and share it by inviting some of the day’s guest speakers to the school and holding a trivia week to raise awareness.
“Raising awareness is probably more important than fundraising. Everyone who knows about it can then spread the awareness more, in their home life and in their community.”
All Saints Catholic College Year 9 student Audrey Elardo, 15, said the day had allowed her to consider the positive and negative impacts of Australia’s migration, asylum seeker and refugee policies. Audrey described one guest speaker’s story as inspirational.
“Her father was in opposition to the government and was taken into prison for four years. Her and her mum, her little sister and her dad’s friend escaped to Jordan, where they stayed for five years until she got to Australia. When she got here she was diagnosed as hearing impaired and they said she had a speech disability. Now she is doing journalism at UTS, so it was really nice to see how that turned out.”
Audrey said she would tell friends and family “to definitely see if they can help in any way and try to support the refugees coming here, even if it is just in a little way.”
Education Officer Secondary Religious Education Louise Zavone said the students in Years 9 to 11 who attended came from 43 high schools within the Archdiocese of Sydney. Many held leadership positions at their school.
“It is an opportunity for them to come together to see that there are all these other people who have got a passion for justice, then to take that back to their own schools and to empower and to share that message with other students,” she said.
“One of the main objectives is that they get to engage with the social justice statement. Because it is a statement that is released every year it can be put on a shelf or at the back of a church, so we wanted the students to know that the Bishops are writing about these big issues in society.
Bishop backs statement
Australian Catholic Social Justice Council chair, Bishop Vincent Long supported the message in his 2015-16 statement with an appearance at the Social Justice Day.
He spoke about his own family’s refugee experience and the contribution of Vietnamese refugees to Australian society. He also posted a photograph to support the Jump Up & Down 4 Kids social media campaign, which aims to create awareness that children do not belong in immigration detention.
Bishop Long fled Vietnam as a teenager with his family. “I experienced communist oppression and I saw how tyranny and cruelty can leave people with no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere, in any way possible,” he writes in the foreword for the statement. Read the full document here.