Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, and Rosemary Kariuki, 2021 Local Hero Australian of the Year, have both experienced first-hand the trauma of being forced to leave their homes and move to the unknown in search of safety.
Their experiences were highlighted at an event hosted by the Australian Embassy to the Holy See for World Day of Migrants and Refugees on 24 September 2021. Hosted by Australian Ambassador to the Vatican, Chiara Porro, they joined Holy See Undersecretary for Migrants and Refugees Fr Fabio Baggio as guest panelists.
Guests including Bishop Paul Tighe Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Sr Nathalie Becquart from the Synod of Bishops, Ambassadors from Japan, Malaysia, Korea, US, UK, Iran, Timor Leste, and the Netherlands attended the online event which commenced with a screening of Rosemary’s Way, a documentary demonstrating the transformative impact that reaching out to others can have. In the film, immigrant and refugee women from Western Sydney talk about feeling worthless, isolated, sometimes abused by their partners, and afraid to leave their homes. Many of them also admitted longing to meet and be welcomed by ‘Aussies’, who they rarely come across in their day to day lives.
The film shows how Rosemary, who, as well as working as a community liaison officer with NSW Police, also spends much of her spare time organising activities for migrant women. She brings women together to meet each other, network, socialise, and get information and help if they are being abused. The film shows how she introduces them to rural communities where they stay with ‘Aussies’ and see a different part of NSW. Opening their homes to a stranger is a new experience for the rural women, too. In the process they find themselves making friends they would never otherwise have met. A process Fr Fabio described as “opening minds”.
Fr Fabio was inspired by the documentary, explaining how Rosemary is demonstrating exactly what Pope Francis is asking for, that all people are welcomed and valued by society. “Understanding migration as an opportunity, not a problem is what the message of the Holy Father for this day is all about,” he said. “An ever wider ‘we’ is telling us about the opportunity brought by migration.”
“Australia has been graced by migration,” he said. Pointing out that each migrant needs the opportunity to express their potential, he referred to how Rosemary is doing this. “She is unleashing their potential, given them the possibility to express their skills, to put their ideas on the table even if they are not recognised,” he said.
He made particular mention of the events she organises with music, dance and fun. Celebrating life in this way is what the Vatican also likes to see, he said. Fr Fabio described Rosemary as a changemaker and said, “This is exactly what Pope Francis is asking us to do. Make a lot of noise. Migrants and refugees should be acknowledged.”
In the film, one woman describes her joy at being served a cup of tea by her host. Because she was so isolated, this was the first time anyone had ever done this for her. “This is what we need,” said Fr Fabio, “to make migrants feel at home, being part of the ‘we’.”
During the discussion, Bishop Vincent described how he has seen a change in Australia’s welcome of migrants and refugees. Coming to Australia as a refugee from Vietnam in 1981 as a result of the war in that country, he acknowledged what a challenge receiving thousands of refugees from an Asian background had been to Australia at the time. Despite this, he said, “Australia rose to the occasion, it opened its doors to us.”
Bishop Vincent explained how over time, refugees and migrants can become agents for a better Australia and not just recipients. They can make a difference in shaping the very character of the nation. He described how Rosemary became an ‘unlikely’ source of change, and how presenting herself so openly and truthfully, Rosemary was able to embolden others to share their insights and stories.
Sadly, he said, the narrative of seeing each other as a threat is alive in Australia, describing Australia’s system of indefinite detention as cruel, inhumane and “A tragic part of our history”.
“People like Rosemary can tell Australia there is another way,” he said.
Messages for those with uncertain futures
The panel were asked what message they might wish to share with people who are currently unsettled.
Rosemary urged people to “Live for today.”
“God brought you to this country because there is something He wanted you to do,” she said. “Ask ‘what can I do for the community?’ By sharing, life will open up. See Jesus in everyone. When you see a refugee, an asylum seeker, that is God.”
Bishop Vincent, having been in a refugee camp himself, not knowing what his future held, admitted the days in the camp seemed ‘extraordinarily long’. “I feel the anguish and despondency that refugees feel during their time in detention,” he said. He reinforced Rosemary’s message that every day is a gift from God, and to use that gift well.
“I used that time in the refugee camp to learn to type. I had lived a sheltered life in Vietnam so I also had to learn how to cook and look after myself,” he said.
He also attributes the time in the camp as part of his decision to follow the priestly vocation. “I learned not to feel sorry for myself, but to enter the experience and the life of the people around me.
“That camp is where I saw God is all around us. I learned to appreciate the goodness of people even in the worst possible scenario.”
Fr Fabio urged people to keep hope and know they are loved. “There will be someone around the corner who will show you, as Rosemary does, you are loved.”