AUSTRALIA can and should do more to help refugees and asylum seekers, the Catholic bishops’ delegate on those concerns Bishop Vincent Long said.
Bishop Long made that clear during a recent meeting in Brisbane with refugee families from Syria and Iraq and their supporters.
He was taking questions during the gathering in St Joseph’s Church, Bracken Ridge, when one of the refugees raised his concerns for family members in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon who could be “there for many years waiting, waiting and waiting, and they have nothing”.
“What about them?” he asked.
Bishop Long, who was in Brisbane as a guest of the Sisters of St Joseph and Evangelisation Brisbane, said “we realise that this is just a fraction of the dispersal of refugees from your homeland, from Iraq or from Syria”.
“Both countries are embroiled in civil war, and Australia can do a lot more,” the Bishop of Parramatta said. “Last year, it was promised that 12,000 extra refugees would be brought from refugee camps to Australia, but, as I understand it, only a trickle have come through.
“We have to call the Government to account.
“And we understand that the … situation and the lack of infrastructure can present serious challenges for the Government, but we are pressing the Government to honour its commitment and even to do more.
“Australia certainly can do more in helping refugees.”
Bishop Long said the refugee families and the people supporting them, including parishioners, could help bring about the attitudinal change necessary for that to happen.
Addressing “the people who make this welcome of refugees possible – the people on the ground, parishioners of this great parish community, as well as Catholics and citizens of good will across the country”, he said “you people are the ambassadors for the Australia that we want to promote, that we want to be”.
“A change in government policy towards refugees in this country, and towards asylum seekers, will come from below (not from political parties), because politicians will respond to the will and the wishes of their electors,” he said.
“And so by building a coalition of concerned citizens in showing respect, kindness, hospitality, solidarity to asylum seekers and refugees you will ultimately change the attitude of Australians.”
For that reason, Bishop Long said the refugee families were “truly God-sent to us”.
“I say it in all sincerity; you are God-sent to us so that by the goodness of positive engagement between you and the broader Australian community we can bring back this beautiful country of ours to what it can be,” he said.
“We have descended so far to the bottom of the barrel, and I think it is high time for us to rise above the mean-spirited and base politics that we have been embroiled in.
“And your presence and your positive engagement with the community will break that fear, that raw fear, that is around certain sections of Australian society.”
Two representatives of the refugee families – Nawfel Al Kes Batras for the Iraqis, and Abdullah Shamoun for the Syrians – welcomed Bishop Long to Bracken Ridge on behalf of the group.
Earlier, Bishop Long met with social justice and refugee support group members from parishes across the Brisbane archdiocese.
He was welcomed to an event at Banyo Nundah parish’s Nolan Hall, organised by the Sisters of St Joseph.
Bishop Long spoke about “The Gospel imperative to welcome the stranger”.
“All of us, the baptised are called to be prophets … by definition counter culturists, agents of the Gospel … for the sake of justice, dignity and the common good of our people, especially the downtrodden,” he said.
“… And if there is one issue in which we need to be true prophets who dance to a different drum beat of society, it is the issue of asylum seekers and refugees.
“Across Europe and across the Western world there is prejudice against people fleeing their war-torn and violence-torn countries.”
The meeting was a call-to-arms to parish social justice supporters looking for ways to assist newly-arrived refugees in Brisbane.
Acting director of Brisbane archdiocese’s Centre for Multicultural Pastoral Care Clyde Cosentino said practical help was needed – child care, transport and helping refugees make community connections.
Bracken Ridge pastoral council member Netta Sheridan said: “We need help – more volunteers.”
“Today we need people who are prepared to visit and form a relationship,” she said.
By Mark Bowling and Peter Bugden