Catholic parish and school leaders in Greater Sydney gather to affirm support for refugees and people seeking asylum

17 May 2021

On the 27th of March Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia organised a first meeting of Catholic parish and schools leaders from across Greater Sydney to plan for welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating refugees and people seeking safety in 2021. 

35 leaders from parishes, schools, and NGOs across all three Catholic dioceses in Greater Sydney, attended the meeting.  The Catholic Diocese of Parramatta generously hosted this event in the Cloister Function Room at St Patrick’s Cathedral. After a year of isolation it was special that so many leaders who have been supporting those seeking safety on our shores could get together and meet in person. 

At the next day’s Palm Sunday Rally, eighteen leaders joined the thousands of people in Sydney demanding justice for refugees. After a day of discussing the issues people seeking asylum are facing it was empowering to march with others working towards a more welcoming Australia for all. 

Sharing successes and challenges

The key goals of the meeting were for leaders from across Greater Sydney to connect with each other, share stories of success from 2020, hear about latest policy developments and plan action for the year ahead. 

We began the morning with story-telling. Leaders from three social justice groups in different parts of Greater Sydney spoke about what they had done and learnt in 2020. Frances D’Ambra from the Social Justice Group at St Aloysius Parish in Cronulla spoke about how her parish wanted to organise a regular food drive after hearing about the plight of people seeking asylum during COVID-19. 

Towards the end of the year, after hearing that the numbers needing assistance were growing, St. Aloysius decided to reach out to other churches, faith groups, and schools in the area to invite them to join. They were met with a hugely positive response, showcasing the significant generosity and compassion across Cronulla.   

Bill Aitken from Social Justice Around the Bay talked about the wonderful response from a webinar they ran for Migrant and Refugee Sunday (M & R Sunday) 2020 called Forced like Jesus to Flee. Bill spoke powerfully about the need to hear and follow Pope Francis’ message of welcome and protection, including by letting our decision-makers know that Australia should not leave vulnerable people behind. 

SJ Around the Bay organised two successful meetings with Federal Government decision-makers in the second half of 2020. Bill also talked about social justice work as a means of re-engaging young people in our Church. 

It was at the ‘Forced to Flee’ webinar that Anthony Matthews from the Parish of the Good Shepherd, Plumpton heard Zaki Haidari share his story of seeking protection in Australia. Anthony said hearing Zaki share about how long it’s been since he has seen his family hit him hard as he recently became a father himself. While Anthony had been supporting JRS for a number of years through food assistance, it was this webinar that stirred energy in him to keep doing more. He saw the need for policy change after hearing of the realities and challenges of living in Australia while seeking asylum. 

From there, Anthony and the social justice group at The Good Shepherd got to work, and ran a webinar of their own. Anthony told us that the webinar was a huge success with 400 views and a lot of engagement throughout; thirty parishioners also signed a letter to their local MP asking for more to be done to support families and individuals in need. In 2021, The Good Shepherd parish will build deeper engagement within their community of three thousand plus people on these issues.

Action in 2021 

Within the room there was a clear desire to make sure that people in their parishes, schools and local communities were aware of the challenges people seeking asylum were facing. They felt that there needs to be more education and sharing of stories of lived experiences to soften people’s hearts and minds. There was also a hope that Catholic leadership in their Dioceses would join them in walking in solidarity with people seeking asylum.  

To bring their hopes to light they have planned to run Community Conversations, engage with their clergy, organise forums or assemblies in the lead up to local council elections and hold a city wide solidarity event for Refugee Week. These actions will be an important contribution to making sure our country welcomes and protects people when they need it most. 

Responding to the need in 2020

This first meeting in 2021 comes on the back of significant action from parishes and schools to support those left behind during the pandemic. The compassion, generosity, and strategic engagement of more than 100 parishes and schools contributed significant to the fact that many women, children, and men have managed to avoid all-out destitution and homelessness.

The pandemic heavily impacted people seeking safety, and so many other temporary visa holders. People seeking safety and those on temporary visas had no access to JobKeeper or JobSeeker or any other ongoing support even after losing employment.

Families and individuals living and working independently in the community for years suddenly returned needing assistance with rental payments, money for medication, and food. Whereas JRS Australia was previously supporting 200 people per month with food aid, we are still providing food aid to more than 1000 people a week.

But avoiding homelessness and destitution does not equate to safety, security, or the opportunity to thrive as members of the Australian community. So many Catholic communities recognise that the Federal Government must provide access to ongoing financial support to those who demonstrably cannot find employment or are unable to work for health or other reasons. 

Ten groups from across Sydney organised more than thirty actions last year in support of those doing it tough. These included hosting public webinars, attended by hundreds of leaders from around the city, and meetings with six Federal Government MPs in Sydney to highlight the challenges and call for change, in advance of the October 2020 Federal Budget. 

If you would like to be part of an action or a local group supporting refugees and people seeking safety across Greater Sydney, please get in touch with Zoe at zoe.grant@jrs.org.au

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