Home General News Highest honor for the 80-year-old nun who fights for asylum seekers

Highest honor for the 80-year-old nun who fights for asylum seekers

by ervte

Sister Brigid Arthur hopes she doesn’t sound ‘like Pollyanna’ when she says she sees a positive attitude change towards asylum seekers in the Australian community.

The Melbourne Brigidine nun refers to the overly optimistic heroine of a classic children’s book. The latter was determined to find something to be happy about, no matter how bleak the situation was.

“I think people say ‘enough is enough,” she tells Eternity as she travels by train from Colac back to Melbourne, where she lectures ninth-grade students.Highest honor for the 80-year-old nun who fights for asylum seekers

“I think there have been some significant public stories that have done that,” she says, referring to the outrage over the indefinite detention of asylum seekers at the Park Hotel and the wave of public support for the Nadesalingam family to return to Biloela.

Australians protested the treatment of asylum seekers detained at the Park Hotel in January 2022. Matt Hrkac on Flickr

She is encouraged by suggesting that the Albanian government will allow the Nadesalingam family to remain in Biloela “with certainty”. She hopes this will lead to the regularization of visas for all people stuck on temporary protection visas.

With her years of advocacy and support for refugees and asylum seekers recognized with an AO – Officer of the Order of Australia – in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, Brigid has long waited for the tide to turn.

She credits “that so many proponents have stuck with it for a long time and have somehow kept the story out of the public eye. And the fact that if you can get people to meet people, once they have a human face, they will probably say, ‘Oh, well, I thought they were all bad, but I’ve met one that I think is probably decent.’ So little by little, we will get there.”

When Brigid first became involved in visiting detainees at the Melbourne detention center more than 20 years ago, the story of boat arrivals was decidedly negative.

In 2001, many believed that Howard government ministers said asylum seekers in Tampa had thrown their children overboard as a ruse to land in Australia.

The controversy in Tampa catalyzed Australia’s offshore handling regime and tough border protection measures to prevent unauthorized arrivals from reaching Australia by boat.

“I think the stories the government created in the early 2000s with the Tampa and the kids overboard” [affair] created the rhetoric around “there were so many coming and we don’t know who they are, and they could be terrorists,” Brigid says.

“And you say it wasn’t true – it was proven false – but people believed many of those things. People will still bring up now and then, not so much in recent years, but before that, they said, ‘They can’t be very good people; nobody throws their children into the sea.’ I mean, no acknowledgment that no terrorist came by boat. But that story has impacted Australian consciousness.”

“I don’t like awards much, but I suffer if it does something to draw attention to the problems.”

Brigid, widely known as “the octogenarian nun” at age 87, has shown little sign of slowing down since she co-founded the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project in 2001. She is also an author, trustee of Kildare Ministries, a lifelong Victoria Catholic Social Servic member, and winner of the 2021 Pro Bono Public Impact AwardSeveralal Catholic secondary schools.

“I don’t like honors much, but it bothers me if it does anything to draw attention to the problems,” she says sullenly, referring to her gong on the Queen’s Birthday Honors List.

She says her interest in refugees was first sparked when she worked at a school in Melbourne’s western suburbs, which received “wave after wave of newcomers and refugees”.

“I lived in an area with many people who came after World War II, mostly widows from Eastern Europe,” she recalls.

“So the whole history of displacement fascinates me. I am aware of the stories of people’s trauma and resilience. It’s amazing what people go through and still survives- indeed, they come out so strong in many cases. But against that is the cruelty and inhumanity of what we have done to many people in Australia.”

After visiting inmates as part of a social justice group, she noticed the mental health of the people she met was deteriorating.

“In particular, a young man spoke to me about blood on the floor that wasn’t there! Then I started asking questions and thinking, ‘How could you get him out?’ I found out you could get him out by paying $3,000 bail, so we did. I was quite naive at the time, but ironically it was a coincidence that he had come to Australia as a student on a valid visa term.

“But where I was very naive was that I thought he could come out and do his thing. Of course, he couldn’t because he had no money. There is no right to work, but there is certainly no opportunity to work, so we had to buy a house, which grew from there.”

“There were no complaints; no people went into hiding, and yet they ended it, and it was all about safety.”

The Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project (BASP) provided practical support such as housing, food, financial aid, visa assistance, family reunification, English teaching, and employment. Until 2015, support for asylum seekers included taking families on day trips from detention before excursions were banned.

Sister Brigid welcomes the Nades, Priya, Kopika, and Tharnicaa Nadesalingam families (shown here with Angela Fredericks and her husband). Still, she points out that thousands of other families like hers have equal or better cases of staying in Australia. @HometoBilo Twitter

“We could take families and individuals on Sundays and bring them to one place. People cooked lunch, and we had lunch. Or we would take them to the zoo. It was just great. Then it all got tighter under the previous government. That wasn’t all possible. They tightened up every possibility to alleviate the situation of these people. But there were no complaints, no people went into hiding, yet they ended it, and it was all about safety.”

BASP is now helping the 36 men who have been released from the Park Hotel, but she says: ‘There is such a degree of brokenness in the people that we have been locked up for so long. We broke them.”

While she welcomes the outpouring of sympathy for the Nadesalingam family moving back to Biloela, she points out that thousands of other families like her have equal or better cases of staying in Australia.

“We are starting to talk about regularizing the visas of all these detained people because they… [the government] know that it is not good for anyone for the courts to become clogged with the various stages of appeal,” she says. “It cannot stay as it is forever. It just isn’t possible.”

While she agrees that there is currently little alternative to returning boats from Sri Lanka and elsewhere, she believes the government should demonstrate a good way of seeking settlement and a fair share to take people in.

“If it could be a global or certainly a regional agreement, then we have to say, ‘Well, we won’t be able to take everyone who wants to leave, but what we can do is a significant number of people who are on fleeing persecution, famine or climate change. It must be on a rational, reasonable, and humane basis so that everyone can see why we do what we do.”

“You keep working to get more and more of the success stories.”

Her first answer is “stubbornness!” when asked what keeps her going daily. Then she adds: “The government has done the worst to people they could imagine. And those who believe that’s the worst and that it’s cruel, inappropriate, and horrible should never give up on crying out and doing what we can to alleviate the suffering.

“The other thing is that I work with great people, and they are a lot of fun. People think that every day must be gloomy if you’re working on something desperate. We laughed a lot – not about the issue, but about life in general.”

And while the success stories aren’t as numerous as they’d like, “we’re getting enough to know it’s possible, and you’re asking for celebration and joy. And so you keep working on getting more and more of the success stories.”

When asked if she draws strength from her faith, Brigid admits that she relies on the revolutionary teachings of Jesus in scripture.

“So many Christians think it’s a recipe that promotes the status quo and that you don’t have to do much except play by the rules. Well, nothing could be further from the truth than reading the Jesus story. The unwanted were the people he mostly talked about and told parables about. His message was very revolutionary.”

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