Sarah Puls reflects on 40 Years of the JRS Community
26 March 2023
Sarah Puls is a passionate advocate for the rights of people seeking asylum, a social worker, and Good Samaritan Sister, who served as the JRS Casework Team Leader from 2015-2018.
I had the pleasure of working with JRS Australia for four years as the JRS Case Work Team Leader between 2015 and 2018. In those years, and since then, I often find myself reminding people who objectify or stigmatise people seeking asylum that they are just people.
We are all just people. Humanity bundled together, with our challenges and our gifts, with our dreams for the future and our love for family and community. Just regular people.
When I was asked to write this reflection, I accepted willingly, thinking that it would be a pleasure to reflect on the wonderful work that JRS does and contribute to the celebrations. But it has been much more difficult than I thought. It is difficult because there is so much. In the 40 years of JRS, policy has become so much more punitive towards people seeking protection. In 2020, the situation facing people who come to Australia seeking safety and those who are waiting to have their refugee status considered, and for the chance to rebuild their lives in Australia is so unfathomably bleak, and only seems to be getting worse.
It is horrific to reflect on the shifts in the policy and practice in Australia which have led to the current nightmare scenario. I am filled with rage when I recognise that, having signed the refugee convention, politicians in Australia, some media, and far too many people in Australia just flatly deny the humanity and dignity of the human beings who come to our country seeking safety.
The process of applying for protection is inconceivably slow and forces people to live with uncertainty and without the right of residence or family reunion for long periods. There is no real reason for the long delays. Those who face long periods of uncertainty are treated in ways which should rightly shock a society which is accustomed to basic human rights. The decisions to indefinitely detain innocent people, to force incredibly sick people into destitution, to leave people homeless and unable to work should shock us. I’m not sure that they do anymore.
Through my role at JRS, I had the absolute privilege of coming to share in the journey of hundreds of people who came through our doors seeking information, critical support and a sense of community. To know those people and to have been blessed with their trust in sharing with me their hopes, fears, dreams and challenges is a gift beyond words.
The parts of our work that were painful – like never having enough resources for all those desperately in need of help – have faded in my memory, especially in comparison to the joy and honour of the relationships of trust that held us all together.
And when I think over what JRS has been for the last 40 years, that is the thing that deserves to be named and honoured the most – the relationships.
The relationships are the most essential part of the mission to ACCOMPANY, SERVE and ADVOCATE.
Within all that JRS does, relationships are the practical way that those three things interact and flow from each other. It is these relationships that make English classes possible, that make the foodbank possible, that make donations possible, that make interagency collaboration possible, that make advocacy possible. And for JRS, those relationships are broad and inclusive and draw people together in a fluid community of hope and action which refuses to be intimidated or distressed by the ongoing challenges facing those needing protection and forced to navigate a dehumanising system. JRS responds to the dehumanisation by drawing humans together to respond in real, practical, and empowering ways.
At the beginning and the end of everything that happens at JRS are the people who are seeking asylum. While they are in vulnerable situations because of structural injustices which oppress and exclude them, it would be simplistic and untrue to simplify these children, women and men as merely people who receive a service from JRS. These people who come to Australia with skills and experience, with hope and determination, are not passive recipients of some charitable act. They are integral parts of the community in ways that often happen quietly behind the scenes but which are so important to the shape of that same community.
And while refugees are core to JRS in a particular way, my experience is that everyone in the community thrives when the integrity and value of every person is valued. The JRS community consists of many people, and everyone is of equal value in this community. The people accessing services and contributing to this community through their gifts, skills, humour and generosity matter. The people who encourage their communities and schools to give food to foodbank matter; as do the people who generously volunteer to provide practical support like English classes or a welcoming face at the front door.
The people who walk into meetings with the government and continue to challenge the injustice and advocate for better ways matter, as do the people who listen to the stories of hardship and try to meet the practical as well as emotional needs. The people who serve on the JRS board, the supporters who work in the community to advocate and educate, the partner organisations who are beside JRS in so many ways… all of those people together are the creators, the inspiration, and the practical energy behind JRS.
As a Catholic, I sometimes am disheartened by the ways that opportunists pick particular bits of Catholic Social Teaching and act as though that defines how one should think and act. For me, JRS embodies the core of what Catholics, and most people of faith and goodwill believe – that every human being is as valuable as any other – not in a way that diminishes, but in a way that holds up the ideal that every person is equal in rights and in dignity. Every person belongs in the community.
Every person has the right to strive towards the fullness of life — that is our ultimate aim. JRS understands that people’s dignity and rights don’t stem from citizenship or religion or location, but are simply a result of their humanity. Of our shared humanity. As we celebrate 40 years of JRS, I think we are really celebrating 40 years of people coming together, working together to be a force of humanity in a world that needs it more than ever.
~ Sarah Puls
Good Samaritan Sister & JRS Casework Team Leader (2015-2018)
Celebrating 40 Years of JRS. This reflection features in our latest LINK publication, special Christmas edition: Celebrating 40 years of JRS (the PDF is here).
In 2021, JRS will celebrate our 40 Year Anniversary. We would love you to be there! More updates to come. Our free newsletter will give more details in coming months.
The entire JRS Australia team thank Sarah for her beautiful reflection and all her efforts in promoting the dignified living of forcibly displaced peoples.