Bethlehem College Ashfield students have taken a strong and silent approach to raising awareness of the plight of refugees and asylum seekers.
A group of 100 students from the College stood for about 20 minutes with their mouths taped shut on the steps of St Vincent’s Catholic Church opposite their school on Wednesday, August 31, to protest the treatment of children kept in immigration detention centres such as Nauru.
The demonstration was similar to one staged by the College in 2014, where students sat in ‘Circles of Silence’ every lunch time during Refugee Week.
Year 12 Faith in Action Committee Leader Naome Rusera, 18, said both events had allowed students to reflect on the people and conditions in immigration detention facilities and become involved in programs that supported refugees and asylum seekers who had arrived in Sydney.
Students now volunteer at Ashfield-based Settlement Services International. The community-based not-for-profit organisation provides accommodation, assistance, employment services and other programs for migrants and asylum seekers. An awareness evening at Bethlehem College on April 2 invited parents, community members and students from other schools to listen to refugee guest speakers along with Benjamin Law, and enjoy multicultural performances and food.
We want to help … bring about change.
“Students would look at us and question what was going on: why do they have those numbers on their mouths, why aren’t they saying anything?” Naome said of the demonstrations.
“That was where the determination to do something and create awareness came from, so we went and volunteered at Settlement Services International in community kitchens, and we participated in consultations with refugee youth and had discussions.
“After being involved and having spoken to other refugee people you start to get an understanding of how they feel and I think you’re motivated to find out more. Seeing students actively standing up to create awareness is different to seeing it on TV. In a way it’s being a voice for the voiceless.”
Bethlehem College Vice-President Imogen Delangre, 17, agreed.
“It’s such a good feeling to know that we are actually doing something rather than being in school all day and just sitting down. It gives us an outlet to express our faith and to really work towards doing something positive in the community,” she said.
“It’s raising awareness of the problems and conditions people have to face on places like Nauru. Doctors can’t speak about certain conditions and what happens on Nauru and I think it’s a really terrible thing to suppress that sort of information. We want to help make people aware of that and bring about that change.”
Student demonstrators wrote numbers on the tape across their mouths to highlight the dehumanising effect of children in detention being referred to by a number rather than their names.
Year 11 student Therese Kanaan, 16, will take on the role of Faith in Action president at the school next year. She said the legacy left by the current leaders had been a big one.
“We’re going to do our best to make sure that this doesn’t diminish at the end of this year – that it continues and grows,” she said. “Once the TV shuts off the problem goes away. It’s out of your mind. Here it confronts people and causes them to question things. We just want to make sure that people understand that those issues are a reality and we can’t just shove them away into a box in the corner.”