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Catholic community faces possibility of losing ‘adopted son’ Tamil refugee Nobert Eltran

Nobert Eltran

Community member: Nobert Eltran has become a valued member of the community of Jubilee parish in Brisbane but his application for a protection visa has been rejected. Photo: Emilie Ng.

SATURDAY afternoon has rolled around and Tamil refugee Nobert Eltran takes his usual place on the top step of Sacred Heart Church, Rosalie.

He waits as people pull up in the carpark for the 4.30pm Vigil Mass.

Like every other Saturday, he runs down to open the car doors for elderly parishioners struggling to exit their vehicle.

He also hands out the weekly newsletter with a smile, greeting everyone as “Mum” or “Dad”, “Grandmother” or “Grandfather”.

When Mass is finished, he jumps in his car to begin his final job for the night – dropping people safely to their homes.

This has been Nobert’s weekend routine for two years, but all of it could come to an end after the Australian Government rejected his application for a protection visa last month.

The thought of Nobert leaving Australia was heavy news for parishioners in Brisbane’s Jubilee parish, which includes the inner-city Sacred Heart Church.

Having a refugee in their midst has opened their eyes to the generosity of people who have fled their homes for a better life.

Everybody loves Nobert

Parishioners stand with Nobert

Strong support: The community of Sacred Heart Church, Rosalie, rallies around in support of Sri Lankan refugee Nobert Eltran. Photo: Supplied.

Anne Hampson has gone to Mass at Sacred Heart Church since 1956 and said the best thing to happen in the parish in her time was welcoming Nobert.

“The fact that he stands at the front door and he knows everybody, runs down and opens the car doors … you can see how people think differently of refugees now because they’ve seen such a wonderful one that we’ve got here,” Mrs Hampson said.

“They see him and their eyes light up.”

Dell and Hans Hahne are another couple who have been touched by Nobert’s presence in the parish.

They are members of the Jubilee parish’s Refugee Support Group, which offered Nobert a roof over his head and opportunities for work two years ago.

“It’s a much better parish, it’s a happier parish, and more people are talking to each other because of Nobert,” Mrs Hahne said.

“He hands out the newsletters and the booklets and he’s got a smile for everybody.

“It’s a much closer parish because everybody’s talking to each other.”

Nobert is a regular guest in the Hahne home, to the point where he has become the couple’s “fourth son”.

“He calls me Mama and he calls Hans Papa,” Mrs Hahne said.

“He’s the most wonderful young man – he’s dearly loved by everybody.”

No more was this love for a humble and willing refugee more evident than on June 1, when Nobert was told that his application for a protection visa had been rejected by the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

The Hahnes were among the first to hear the news.

“It’s such a shame to have him thinking this is Heaven and then have the prospect of him being sent back over there,” Mr Hahne said.

Soon, every Catholic in the Jubilee parish had heard the bad news.

“He was telling me last Sunday night, two ladies came up and cried when they heard the news,” Mrs Hahne said.

“He’s such an integral part of the community – his work ethic is incredible, his faith life, you just wish you had the faith he has.

“All he wants is ‘Good visa’, he keeps saying, ‘Good visa’.

“He thinks this is his home; it’s where he wants to be.”

He calls Australia home

Nobert Eltran

Nobert Eltran: “My first time looking in this place, I was very happy.” Photo: Emilie Ng.

Nobert is now awaiting a decision from an automatic internal review being carried out by the Immigration department, but there is no set date for the outcome.

He now faces the prospect of returning to Sri Lanka, the country he fled when he was just seven years old.

“Here leaving, to go back, I am very sad,” Nobert said.

“Mum said, ‘Don’t you come back’.”

As a Tamil facing persecution in Sri Lanka, Nobert’s family believed life at home was dangerous and fled to India.

He was seven years old and lived in three separate camps in India over a 22-year period.

Before escaping to India, Nobert said he witnessed horrific killings in his home country.

He remembers the time his father walked home from the police station after being beaten by military officials; before he made it he suffered a heart attack and died under a tree.

His mother eventually returned to Sri Lanka in 2002 and Nobert was told to never return home.

He continued to pray for her safety but in 2005 he received a phone call he had been dreading – his family had died in the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

“For one month I was very sad,” Nobert said.

But not all was lost.

Unbelievably, Nobert received another phone call nearly one month later to say the report about his family was wrong – his mother and brother had been found alive.

Nobert’s Catholic faith has been a constant rock throughout all the uncertainty.

Baptised a Catholic as a child in the 1990s, Nobert often turned to Mother Mary for help.

“I prayed in India, ‘Mary Mother, I pray, you’ve given me a good life, I (will) help your Church every day’,” he said.

Nobert would soon have a way to live out that promise to Mary when on April 18, 2013, he arrived in Cocos Island, north-west of Perth.

He was transferred to Christmas Island for three-and-a-half months, spent another seven months in a refugee camp in Weipa and a further 15 days in Darwin before arriving into Brisbane, living in Woodridge initially.

He began attending weekly English classes at the Romero Centre in Dutton Park where he was told about a project in Rosalie that housed refugees and asylum seekers.

He said the first time he saw Sacred Heart Church, he felt at home.

“My first time looking in this place, I was very happy,” Nobert said.

It took another year for Nobert to secure a working visa, but once it was secured, he set about working for parish priest Fr Peter Brannelly, as he had promised Mother Mary.

Nobert Eltran

“Adopted son”: The Jubilee parish community of inner-city Brisbane has “adopted” Sri Lankan refugee Nobert Eltran as a favourite son but now the valued parishioner faces an uncertain future. Photo: Emilie Ng

He is the groundskeeper for the parish’s six churches and three schools, the weekly greeter at the front of the church before the Saturday Vigil Mass, and commits to regular maintenance work for parishioners.

“Here (there are) maybe older people, you know, these are no walking people, wheelchair people,” Nobert said. “I bring (them) here to the church, I bring to home.

“Sometimes the rain come here, people can’t walk in and I bring the umbrella and bring them inside the church.

“I help with everything.”

Most notably, Nobert cannot help but thank his boss, Fr Brannelly, who has become a father figure for him.

“Father is (the) best,” he said.

Fr Brannelly is gathering letters from parishioners with the hope of showing the Immigration department what the community will lose by this latest decision.

“He came to us because we have our refugee support group which took the men in and housed them and helped them to find jobs, helped with English,” Fr Branelly said.

“He works in our six churches, and not just in the churches, but our three schools.

“Nobert’s involved in a lot of the maintenance and just making sure our parish runs smoothly, and is always friendly, willing and eager to be involved.”

Nobert Eltran’s story appears on the front page of The Catholic Leader July 9, 2017 edition.

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