On a cool Wednesday autumn afternoon in Blacktown, John* and his wife Rebecca stand outside their temporary accommodation, awaiting Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv.
As the Bishop arrives he is greeted with a warm smile from the couple and invited inside.
Walking into their modest house the Bishop and other guests are invited as to sit. The accommodation is spotlessly clean and would be completely bare if it were not for a donated dining table, a couple of second-hand sofas, and small TV – no bigger than an iPad in the corner of the room.
Hanging with pride of place is a cross inscribed “Jesus” that interrupts the bare walls. Rebecca and John’s children Matthew, Mary and Mark join their parents at the dining table for some Middle-Eastern hospitality, coffee and Rebecca’s traditional Syrian handmade cake.
As the Bishop listens intensely, the family share their story. They are Syrian Catholics, one of the many thousands of families who have fled Syria, a country torn apart by a deadly civil war. Having escaped war-torn Vietnam as a teenager, Bishop Vincent can relate.
Whilst some may consider them fortunate, they still live with concern and worry of relatives and friends left behind. There are 5,000,000 Syrians registered as refugees, a number more than the entire population of Melbourne. The numbers seeking refuge continues to rise as fighting intensifies in the country.
With just the clothes on their back, the family escaped Syria’s capital Damascus and found refuge in neighbouring Lebanon. With a reference and sponsor in Australia, they were granted refugee status under the Australian federal government’s additional humanitarian intake specifically for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
The family are embracing their new life of peace in Blacktown and their local parish Mary, Queen of the Family. Matthew and his twin sister Mary are receiving intensive English classes until the end of the year. Matthew, 16, looks forward to doing his HSC next year and hopes to enter university, although he’s not sure what he wants to study yet. He is keen to join a local soccer club, although he’s not sure how, or if, they will be able to afford the fees. Mark, is loving his new school, a Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta school, who have welcomed him with open arms, like his older brother, he loves sport but would like to play basketball. Their mother’s wish is a lot closer to her heart, she hopes they may be able to get her mother out of Syria to Australia.
Though their English is broken, they are managing to navigate through the complexities of bureaucracy with the assistance of the Diocese of Parramatta Social Justice Office, Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta and Mary, Queen of the Family Parish, Blacktown and other support agencies.
The family are grateful and happy, they see themselves as blessed to be here in Australia, but one cannot help but think that the family will be a greater blessing to their new country.
*Please note for privacy reasons we have altered their names for this article.