WHETHER it’s with pushbikes for transport or laptops for communication, Brisbane teacher Stephen Jorgensen is determined to help refugees and asylum seekers in any way he can.
A week ago Steve, a religious education teacher at Lourdes Hill College, Hawthorn, was instrumental in organising the donation of 20 pre-loved laptops from his school to asylum seekers living in Brisbane.
In January, he was busy inspiring his fellow parishioners in Mt Gravatt to donate bikes so asylum seekers could get around.
Steve, who has been a teacher all his life, grew up a Catholic of Italian heritage in Palmerston North, New Zealand, and his passion for social justice was evident even during his school days.
“I think back to when I was at school in Form Five (the equivalent of Year 11) and it was the middle of the Vietnam War and I was the only kid in the class who argued against the war and argued that the Vietnamese should be allowed to come into New Zealand,” he said.
“I can always remember when we went out for morning tea I was attacked by just about every kid in the class who disagreed and that was back in 1967.”
A passion for social justice and a commitment to follow in the footsteps of such people as the Jesuits and the original “Good Samaritan” are guiding aspects of Steve’s life.
After graduating as a teacher in the early 1970s, he taught in New Zealand and then England where he realised that being in the classroom was indeed his true vocation.
“I’d already been teaching for a number of years but when I taught in London at a comprehensive boys school in South London that’s when it kicked in,” he said.
“It was a very poor area and as a consequence of that I decided I wanted to teach reading because the kids couldn’t read and I honestly didn’t know how they were going to get a job when they left school.”
Steve left London in 1979 to live and study for an honours degree in Australia and New Zealand because he wanted to help “poor kids”.
“I wanted to teach them to read,” he said.
Steve is reluctant to give details but admits that while in London he experienced what he describes as “a very powerful religious conversion”.
“And that has definitely influenced my life,” he said.
“I was brought up a Catholic but it wasn’t until I was 26 that things happened and changed my life forever.”
Steve said in the mid-1980s, the opportunity arose in New Zealand to teach religious education and he was quick to put up his hand.
“I actually rang up and said I wanted to be a teacher of religion and they nearly fell over backwards,” he said.
Steve has been teaching religion since 1986 in various schools including Sacred Heart Girls’ College in Hamilton, New Zealand, and at Lourdes Hill College.
“I am working in a Good Samaritan school but I must say that the most profound theological influence on me has been my journey into Jesuit spirituality,” he said.
“I have been thoroughly immersed in Jesuit spirituality which I have absolutely loved.”
The man, who loves rock’n’roll and the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union team, also loves to nurture the love of learning in his students.
He’s held school leadership positions over the years but as retirement looms and his own five children have grown he admits to being “very happy” simply teaching Study of Religion to Year 11 and 12 students.
It’s also this teaching position that’s been one of the catalysts for his work with asylum seekers – that and a love of Archbishop (Oscar) Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980 for standing up for social justice for his people.
“My brother said to me a long time ago that you had to prepare for your retirement and what you are going to do,” Steve said.
“So I’d reflected on it for quite a while and now that I’m a classroom teacher I’ve got more spare time.”
Steve had considered volunteering to work in prisons before he saw a notice in his parish newsletter from the Romero Centre, which supports refugees and asylum seekers in Brisbane.
“I love Romero, and I have always enjoyed reading anything about him and when I saw they (Romero Centre) wanted volunteers I decided to go along,” he said.
Not only did Steve put his hand up to visit refugees in the Brisbane Detention Centre but he also wanted to help them “when they got out”, to survive on the $200 a week they are given while being denied permission to seek or obtain paid work.
He’s developed a program to help asylum seekers prepare for life in Australia.
“What’s actually happening is nobody is telling them the truth,” he said.
Steve said most asylum seekers he had met had been told lies about how good it would be in Australia.
“No one has actually told them the brutal reality of the actual cost of things,” he said.
“When we first start we try and get them to create a shopping list, and I’ll never forget an Iraqi guy who had just been released and was at one of our sessions with his wife.
“They put lamb on their shopping list and I asked them how much they thought lamb would cost per kilogram.
“He speaks English and I heard him say to his wife ‘well there are lots of sheep in Australia; I don’t know – $2 a kilogram?’
“So the approach I’ve adopted is to be absolutely honest.”
Steve said an entire session was devoted to recognising logos such as those of supermarkets.
“We also teach them the best times to visit farmers’ markets or supermarkets to get the best value and end-of-day mark-downs,” he said.
“There are stories of unbelievable hardship here in Brisbane because people don’t know these things and we are teaching them the everyday skills that they will need to live in poverty in Australia.”
Steve has a deep and genuine respect for the people he visits, and that comes through in our conversation.
“I like working with them,” he said.
“They are a determined group of people who have been through suffering and they have made very demanding choices.
“The people that I’ve met are prepared to put in the effort and I enjoy working with people prepared to put in the effort and to listen and learn.”
Steve believes his 26-year teaching career in religious education, here and in New Zealand, has been a preparation for the work he does supporting refugee and asylum seekers.
“If you’re not living it, it’s not making any sense,” he said.
“I had a religious conversion when I was 26 but I had a Christological conversion when I did the Ignatian spiritual exercises.
“I love the Jesuit theology, I love reading about the Jesuits, I love what they stand for, I enjoy every single thing about the Jesuits.”
When it comes to fellow Catholics, Steve believes discernment is the key to social justice.
“I think the first thing is to actually really reflect on your relationship with Jesus Christ, and that was most profound for me through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises (of the Jesuits),” he said.
“Then, having established that core understanding about what it means to be a Christian, then act upon it.
” I think it was St James who said ‘without action faith is dead’.”
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
The Catholic Leader acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of this country and especially acknowledge the traditional owners on whose lands we live and work throughout the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.