ISABELLA Hollewand is a typical 16-year-old – ploughing her way through exams towards the end of high school, catching up with friends whenever she can and generally enjoying life – but there’s something that sets her apart.
It’s her passion – a passion that’s inspired others to work for the freedom of two young asylum seekers held in detention for seven years.
Izzy was so moved by the plight of the asylum seekers that she just had to do something, so she took the issue to her fellow parishioners at the Parish of Sts Peter and Paul, in the Brisbane suburb of Bulimba.
She won the support of the parish’s social justice group to join forces with Ads-Up Canada, a charity involving a network of expatriate Australians, to raise money for the asylum seekers to be freed from detention and move to Canada.
Ads-Up resettles refugees who Australia has detained on Manus Island and Nauru.
Izzy said “it’s a long story” how she became involved.
“I’ve been interested in the issue of refugees in Australia since I was very young,” she said.
“I’ve been following the issue for quite a while so I read The Guardian every morning and (listen to) the ABC, and it was on one of those news (sources) that I (read or) heard a story about Ads Up.
“And then later that week, my dad (Michael) and I were driving to school – we listen to the ABC every morning – and it came up on an ABC interview … and I turned to my dad and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve heard about this; it’s really great; it seems really legitimate and a great opportunity to make a real difference; I’d love it if we could donate to it …’
“And so then, we spoke as a family with my mum (Alison) and … we were just kind of brainstorming …
“We didn’t want to just donate to it; we wanted to do more, have a bigger impact.
“I think I might’ve suggested maybe posting about it on social media to see if we could encourage some of our friends, and then we came up with the idea to take it to the social justice committee and see if we could make it a parish project, and everything else just kind of happened from there.”
Izzy’s interest in justice for refugees and asylum seekers goes back a few more years though.
“I remember pretty clearly; I was 11 years old,” she said as she recalled how it started.
“I was in Sixth Grade and every time we had what was called a Unit of Inquiry, which was just a random kind of exploration unit we did when they taught us about the world, and one of the units was immigration, and they brought up the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.
“We’d also been doing our government unit at the same time so we were holding mock debates in class, like parliamentary debates, and we’d been debating on the asylum-seeker issue.
“It was pretty heavy, because we were young kids and they pulled no punches.
“I was just fascinated; I went home, I read tons of articles all the way back to 2004, just scoping the entire history of the issue in Australia.”
Izzy couldn’t believe what she was reading.
“It was terrible; it horrified me as a kid,” she said.
“I read reports, those that existed, because obviously there’ve been a lot of restrictions on journalists reporting on it, but I leafed through the Internet … and I read reports of these horrible conditions, and I couldn’t imagine what that must be like.”
Then she had her first opportunity to air her concerns in public.
“There was a public-speaking competition in the Wynnum-Manly area and my school nominated me, and I spoke – just a quick two-and-a-half-minute speech on refugee detention centres – and I ended up winning and I got a bunch of prizemoney and I donated it to the Romero Centre, which is a great centre …,” Izzy said.
“They help support refugees and provide legal advice and assistance.
“Ever since then I’ve just kept on following the issue.”
Public-speaking has become one of Izzy’s main hobbies, and whenever she wins a competition she donates her prize money to the Romero Centre.
But now some of that money will probably go towards the Step Up Parish Project (SUPP) at Bulimba to help raise the $31,000 needed to resettle the two Iranian Kurdish refugees in Canada.
Izzy said her motivation to reach out in this way had come mainly from her faith.
“My parents have always raised me to look out for others, to follow issues that I’m passionate in, and I think a lot of that comes from faith,” she said.
“I remember (parish priest) Fr Tom (Elich), a couple of months before we had launched into SUPP, had been speaking a lot in Mass about being active Christians.
“Prayer is wonderful but when you get opportunities to do good, we are called to act on those opportunities, and SUPP just was one of those.”
The situation facing refugees and asylum seekers was the first social justice issue Izzy encountered.
“That stays in your mind for a long time when you encounter something when you’re quite young, but also it was the sense that terrible things happen all over the world and these people had been just trying to escape that,” she said.
“And Australia would’ve been a beacon of hope to them; we’re supposed to harbour these people.
“They did nothing wrong, and it didn’t make sense to me as a child, to put them in detention indefinitely.
“And the conditions are terrible. I mean, you read some of the news reports – we wouldn’t treat our criminals the way we’ve treated these refugees who have done nothing wrong.
“And I think the injustice just struck me very deeply.
“I can’t imagine what these refugees and asylum seekers have been through and I wouldn’t claim to understand but it strikes me as a very important issue, especially when Australia has such a good social conscience in so many other areas.
“It doesn’t make sense.”
Looking ahead to when she leaves school in a couple of years, Izzy said she’d “probably study for a good few years while I figured out” her career options.
“I definitely want to go into the social sciences – political science, international development …,” she said.
“Journalism interests me a lot, so does international development, working for aid organisations, or the humanities. I’m not sure yet.”
To learn more about the Bulimba parish’s SUPP project go to: http://www.bulimbacatholic.com/supp-step-up-parish-project.html