WELCOME. A powerful, single word translated into Arabic and accompanied by smiles, is uniting Brisbane’s Catholics and newly-arrived humanitarian refugees from the strife-torn Middle East.
Forty Christian families are now settling in at Bracken Ridge in Brisbane’s north and in Logan, with enthusiastic support of parishioners and local Catholic schools.
Their safe arrival in Brisbane is a story of courage, prayers for peace and renewal.
Many of the families fled their villages destroyed by Islamic fighters, leaving with nothing and some have spent the last years in refugee camps in Jordan.
Since the first Iraqis arrived two months ago two babies – a boy and a girl – have been born.
Once their paperwork is completed, they will become Australian citizens, like their parents.
Last week some of the refugee children started Term 3 at primary schools, while other, older refugee students will attend an intensive English course at Milpera State High School, Chelmer, to prepare for senior college.
At St Joseph’s Primary School, Bracken Ridge, five boys – including Year 3 twins Aram and Afram Khudur – are already making friends.
“Our children are really showing these boys love – showing them around and helping them fit in,” principal Gary Creevey said.
“They come from different backgrounds and have learnt different amounts of English. But they have settled in beautifully.”
Next door at the St Joseph and St Anthony Church, the Abdoni family arrived for Sunday Mass on July 10 where they presented their one-month-old baby Michael to the congregation.
It was a joyous event.
“The smiles said everything. The mother who doesn’t speak much English, and the grandmothers in the parish. The smiles crossed the language barrier,” parish priest Fr Gerry Hefferan said.
Another baby, Bianca, was born in the last fortnight and will also be welcomed to the congregation.
Netta Sheridan, parish pastoral council member, said there had been “tears of joy” amongst the congregation as the families arrive and settle in.
“It was a beautiful moment the first Sunday they arrived for church. There were about six families – parents and many children. We all turned and looked as they entered,” she said.
“Fr Gerry simply said ‘Welcome. We welcome you’.”
At another Bracken Ridge Mass, a newly-arrived Iraqi couple sang Ave Maria in Arabic.
“It is a thanksgiving hymn and it was moving,” Fr Hefferan said.
One parishioner wept tears of joy. And there is a reason – a deep and standing spiritual connection and solidarity linking the refugees and parishioners at St Joseph and St Anthony Church.
The 20 refugee families now setting up house in Bracken Ridge and nearby Bray Park fled from northern Iraq – the city of Mosul and the Plain of Nineveh which was once a valley full of Christian villages. In 2009 Fr Hefferan visited Mosul, the first of two visits he has made to northern Iraq.
His visit included a trip to the sacred monastery of Alqosh, where he presented an Aboriginal Message Stick from Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Aboriginal Murri Ministry to the monks as recognition from Australian indigenous to Iraqi indigenous.
On his return, Fr Hefferan started a prayer campaign in support of the war-ravaged people he met – Christians under fire, whose churches and villages were being ransacked and their homes destroyed, and who were fleeing for their lives to Kurdistan and neighbouring countries.
“It was before ISIS (Islamic State) controlled the region,” Fr Hefferan said.
“The way things were going we didn’t know if there would be any Christians survive.”
Many parishes in Queensland were praying in 2009 for the people of northern Iraq. Each rostered parish would take its turn for a week’s prayer. Fr Hefferan sent the rostered list to Erbil in Iraq, so that the local people would know which parish was praying for them.
Some parishes from each of the five Queensland dioceses were involved.
Since then, St Joseph and St Anthony Church has held regular ecumenical vigils praying for peace and for the people of northern Iraq.
Ms Sheridan recalled a prayer for hope, which she delivered at a vigil in 2014: “We feel their pain, their fear for their children, their fear for their weak and infirm, their fear for their elderly parents. We are one.”
“Lord, what do you want me to do?” she said in a reflection Fr Hefferan asked her to present at the vigil. “As part of our Christian faith we are all the body of Christ and he lives out his mission through we, His people. So it is in this way that we, gathered here today, are part of His mission.
“In all of this tragedy there is hope, because we, gathered here on a Sunday afternoon, are the hope.”
Now, Christian families from Mosul and the Plain of Nineveh have been delivered to Bracken Ridge. “It is the same people who we were praying for who have arrived here,” Ms Sheridan said.
By Mark Bowling