Catholic Outlook Highlights for 2022: St Bernadette’s parishioners welcome strangers as new friends

By Debra Vermeer, 10 January 2023
The St Bernadette’s parish mentor group recently gathered to celebrate Eid with the Samim family (centre of pic) who are refugees from Afghanistan. Joanne Long is second from left. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


Over the holiday break, Catholic Outlook is showcasing some of its most viewed, inspiring and thought-provoking articles from 2022.

Parishioners from St Bernadette’s at Castle Hill are building on the parish’s long history of supporting refugees by forming a new group to mentor an Afghan refugee family who arrived in Australia following the Taliban’s takeover of their homeland.

This article was originally published in the 2022 Ordinary Time | Winter 2022 edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine. You can read the magazine here.


The mentoring relationship is part of Catholic Care’s Parish Group Mentorship Program, which is a partnership between Catholic Care Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains and Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia (CRSA).

Catholic Care’s Manager of Community Engagement, Celia Vagg says parish mentorship of refugees offers a way to demonstrate love to our new neighbours, to show our solidarity with the marginalised and suffering, and welcome strangers as new friends. The program helps refugees successfully settle and integrate into their new communities and fosters connection between locals and refugees.

Joanne Long, a parishioner at St Bernadette’s who leads the parish group, says she first became involved after seeing Catholic Care’s notice about the program on the parish’s Facebook page.

“I know Fr Fernando was keen to have our parish help refugees and I was happy to be part of it, because I’d seen how my brother-in-law’s family are still in touch with a Vietnamese refugee family they supported years ago, and how lovely that is.”

Joanne says there are currently six other people from St Bernadette’s and four members of the wider community involved in the refugee support group. They are mentoring a young Afghan couple and their children who arrived as refugees in December and are living in the Hills district in Sydney. The couple, in their 30s, have four children under six years of age. Both parents have university degrees. The wife was working in Human Resources for an international company when the Taliban took over and the husband worked with a company which had Australian links, and which helped them to escape over the border into Pakistan.

She says CRSA provided training and support for group-members and continues to do so.

“We all had to do the usual security and Working With Children Checks,” she says. “And then, because of COVID, we did our six-hour training course online over two days. Normally CRSA would hold in-person workshops. They work with lots of groups from all over Australia and the world, so we feel very well supported by them.”

RELATED: Parishes wanted for refugee Group Mentorship Program

The first request for the group was to help find a computer for the refugee family, as they had to leave theirs behind when they fled Afghanistan, and they require one to complete their online English courses through TAFE, among other day-to-day reasons.

“We put out a call in the parish newsletter and one parishioner, who works for a major financial services company, donated 12 laptops which were almost brand-new, and we’ve been able to distribute them to other refugee families across Sydney,” Joanne says.

“We’ve also helped set the family up on their mobile phones and the parish raised money over Christmas which helped provide them with food voucher debit cards, as they’ve arrived with no money and no job. We’ve met for coffee, walks, picnics and provided general information about government processes, job-seeking, community links, playgroup and sport and helped with school fees, uniforms and household bills.

“In the future, we’ll help them get their driver’s licence and get their driving hours up.

“A big part of it though is just friendship. They’ve arrived in a new country, with few connections, so friendship is really important.”

St Bernadette’s has a long history of supporting refugee families, going back to the 1970s when parishioners took in Vietnamese refugee families and helped them settle into life in Australia.

To learn more about how your parish could mentor a refugee family contact Celia Vagg at Catholic Care: (02) 8843 2550 or

Debra Vermeer is a freelance writer and contributor to the Catholic Outlook Magazine.


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