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Stephen Jorgensen wanted to be ‘where the suffering was’, caring for the outsiders

Stephen Jorgensen: “My greatest concern at the moment is the inhumanity …”

STEPHEN Jorgensen, like many of us, loves going to the movies but there was a time when the horror he was encountering kept him away.

He was visiting refugees in immigration detention in Brisbane, and what he was hearing there was overwhelming him.

“For a long time, I stopped going to the movies,” he said.

“I sort of felt that the real-life stories that I was hearing were infinitely more frightening, infinitely more challenging than the fiction that I was seeing at the movies or reading in books, and it changed me.”

Some of the people he visited and still visits at BITA (Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation) in Pinkenba were asylum seekers from places like Iran, Iraq or Sri Lanka.

Many of them are transferred from detention on Manus Island or Nauru for medical treatment, and some were eventually released into the community.

Steve was so affected by the plight of these people that, if they were released, he continued to support them.

Some encounters he can never forget.

“One of the key events that happened to me right at the beginning – it must’ve been about 2013 or 2014 … It’s almost too much for me to even think about now … the physical torture that I learned about that was made against the Sri Lankans,” he said, recalling a particular group he met at BITA.

“At the time they were interviewed on (ABC TV’s) The 7.30 Report – these two or three Sri Lankans – about the torture that they had undergone in Sri Lanka.

“Their faces were blacked out on The 7.30 Report.

“On the following night, the people who were on that 7.30 Report invited me to a meal at their house in Kedron and … and I listened to their stories.

“There were two statements that stick in my mind …

“I’d visited them in hospital. One of them (when he was tortured in Sri Lanka), he was hung for days, and all his stomach, his intestines were stretched and everything, and he had to go to (hospital in Brisbane).”

The other man he visited had treatment in Brisbane on his leg that was injured through torture.

“One of them said to me, ‘Steve, you in the West, you see blood and you get upset, a little bit of blood … We see blood all of the time. Blood is everywhere’,” Steve said.

“And at the table, I remember them telling me about the prison which they had been in, and they said, ‘In every single cell there is blood – every single cell, blood on the walls, blood on the floors’.”

Having experienced such torture, they are too afraid to return to Sri Lanka, and Steve said he knew Iranians with similar fears of returning to their homeland.

Having been a school teacher for nearly 50 years, Steve’s experiences with asylum seekers have changed his life.

“It has sort of taken me deeper into life,” he said. “I feel alive.

“It’s not just reading about issues; it’s actually being in there, being right there. It’s real.”

Before starting as a volunteer supporting refugees and asylum seekers, Steve had been a teacher at Lourdes Hill College, Hawthorn.

He had a stint at Lourdes Hill as dean of community development, and back home in New Zealand he had been head of religious education at Sacred Heart Girls’ College, Hamilton, for about 10 years, and a deputy principal at another school on the South Island.

As he was approaching 60, one of his brothers suggested Steve should start thinking about what he was going to do in retirement.

“I thought of a number of things that I could be involved in, and I chose that I’d work with refugees,” Steve said.

“My mother (Rose) was Italian and I was born shortly after the Second World War, and Italians in New Zealand, we were sort of a little bit of the outsiders … We ate different food.

“And my mother had a very strong social justice leaning.

“That was part of it. But I’ve always promoted social justice causes.

“And I guess, because I’d been teaching religion so long, I’d sort of really developed my own faith through the teaching of religion.

“I became deeply aware of the Scriptures and the social justice message.

“I come from a poor background, a poor family.

“Even when I was at school, I was always sticking up for the loser, for the outsider.”

Steve had reached a stage where he “really wanted to be at the coalface – enough of helping kids, and enough reading about it, and all of that sort of thing”.

“And it was just the time, that I really wanted to be there where the suffering was, meeting the people, working with them, interacting with them,” he said.

Now that he’s in semi-retirement and only teaching part-time at Lourdes Hill, he’s got more time for the “outsiders”.

When he moved into semi-retirement in 2012 Australia “was at the height of the boat arrivals” of asylum seekers.

“So I became involved with the Romero Centre (which supports refugees and asylum seekers), and particularly with the manager at that time, Rebecca Lim, who’s been outstanding. She’s inspirational,” Steve said.

“Rebecca asked me to visit BITA, and so I started this program where I would go weekly to the detention centre and I developed a program of teaching the refugees about life in Australia.”

Witnessing the suffering and harm experienced by people detained on Nauru and Manus Island, Steve is exasperated that their plight is not being properly addressed.

“I really feel the focus has not been on the suffering of the people who have now been in indefinite detention, and I think this is an absolute tragedy,” he said.

“I think that it’s an absolute tragedy that the emphasis has been upon drownings at sea, drownings at sea … They keep on talking about drownings at sea.

“Yes, the drownings at sea were horrific. And I have met so many of the people who were on the boats, and the stories on the boats are just horrific.

“There is no doubt that the boat situation was horrific.

“However … the thing which the people have now forgotten in Australia … is the absolutely inhumane conditions of those people who have been on Nauru and Manus in indefinite detention.

“Imagine that you are on indefinite detention.”

Steve knows from first-hand experience about the mental trauma and stress this has caused the people living in that limbo. 

“These people they are worn down. They’ve lost their resilience, from six years of indefinite detention,” he said.

“Imagine going to prison and you don’t even know when you’re going to get out.

“My greatest concern at the moment is the inhumanity …

“They’ve stopped the boats. They’ve secured the borders of Australia.

“What I would like to see now, let’s be compassionate towards these people who’ve been unfairly prosecuted.”

Steve said more people would show concern for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru “if they were like the Good Samaritan, if they actually stopped, instead of switching off …”

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the refugees or domestic violence or homelessness or sexual abuse – you name the topic – it doesn’t really impact upon you until you actually meet the people who are involved,” he said.

“It’s all about face-to-face encountering, and that’s why I think that if you look at the stories of Jesus – the woman at the well, he encounters the woman at the well. She is changed by the encounter.”

Steve said he wasn’t saying all refugees were saints.

“They’re not. They’re just a normal sample of society,” he said.

“I mean, Jesus healed the lepers; he didn’t do a character test. He just healed them.”

Written by: Peter Bugden
Catholic Church Insurance

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