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Bravery without borders

Madeline Kelly |  26 July 2014

There are different kinds of bravery, but few of us will ever have to muster the courage to flee our home and make a treacherous journey across the ocean in search of safety. Yet that's a decision that has confronted all of the people Sister Brigid Arthur encounters through the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project.

Originally from the Wimmera rural community of Kaniva, Sr Brigid worked in secondary education before helping found the project with fellow Brigidine Sister Catherine Kelly in 2001. Their aim is to provide hospitality and practical support for asylum seekers, promote advocacy for the rights of asylum seekers and to raise awareness of asylum seeker issues in the community.

What inspired you to begin such a difficult project?
In 2001, as part of the Brigidine Justice Group we decided to visit the Detention Centre in Melbourne and subsequently to establish a house to get a young man who was in detention into the community. This was the beginning of our work as a project. We could not see that detaining a vulnerable young man who had sought the protection of Australia was a good thing to do. This man was obviously becoming quite ill because of the detention.

What is it like to live in a detention centre?
Lack of freedom is the biggest suffering for people in detention. That coupled with the lack of any certainty about the future. No one knows when the answer to their protection claim will be given nor, in most cases, even what the actual process being followed is. Not to know what is going to happen to you is terrible, especially as the time taken just seems to go on and on.

Families live in very cramped conditions, and it is extremely difficult to look after the needs of children in detention. Even when the centre is in a city, many people know no one and they can feel very alone. This is complicated for most because of a lack of English.

How do asylum seekers, especially unaccompanied minors, feel about being confined in a detention center?
Detention is especially hard for young people without family as support. As well, young people need freedom to develop normally.

How are people, particularly children, in detention called to be brave?
I have been present at interviews when older children have kept telling their story in spite of the quite intimidating questions and attitudes on the part of the authorities.

I have known 13- and 14-yearold children who have come to Australia by themselves - some have taken two or three years to get here. One I remember spent quite a time in an Indonesian jail on the way.

What gives you the motivation to persist with such a project after you get knocked down? Is it frustrating to have to cope with a nation of people who ignore the reality of asylum seekers as an issue?
My motivation comes from knowing many asylum seekers. Once you know people, it is impossible to ignore their suffering and it seems an imperative to want justice for them.

I also want Australia to be a country we can all be proud of and I don't think this is so at present.

What comes of the asylum seekers once they are released from the detention center?
A few asylum seekers leave detention centres with a Permanent Visa. These are able to make a life for themselves in Australia. They usually have to wait for years to get their families to join them but at least they have hope.

Most go out from detention now with no right to work or study and with a very limited income. Their applications for protection are not being processed, so again they have no idea of when they will know what is going to happen to them in the future. They are often very isolated and extremely anxious.

Some are able to remain positive, find ways to learn English, and get involved in the community.

Was there a time in your own life when you had to be most brave?
I don't ever feel very brave. I guess the times when I would rather just accept what is happening to people, and instead I choose to speak (and be seen as a nuisance) calls on a bit of courage.

What are some of the most confronting things you have seen?
Seeing little children in detention is very hard. Parents have a very hard time trying to give their children any kind of normal life. They have to eat in large areas with often hundreds of other people; they cannot take food out of the dining area; they cannot prepare food their children like.

Seeing women from Nauru sent to Australian detention centres to have their babies is very traumatic as these women have almost all suffered mental illness as a result of the experience. They are told they have to return to Nauru when their babies are quite small and this causes them extreme anxiety.

What sort of qualities do you think it takes for a person to leave everything behind, such as friends, family and everything she/he has lived for, and to then move into a country where your future is completely uncertain?
I think it takes qualities such as initiative, courage, tenacity and resilience.

What is the most courageous thing you have witnessed?
A young woman who escaped from Somalia hidden in a truck and then a boat, spent time in Yemen with a family who harboured her, escaped and went to Saudi Arabia and survived as a maid, was hardly ever paid and treated badly, escaped again and went to Bahrain. She was again exploited, and then quite amazingly was befriended by someone who got her a ticket to Australia. She spent quite some time in detention until her story could be proven. She is living in the community and is making a life for herself here.

Find out more about the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project and how you can support their work at

View reflection questions and activities for 'Bravery without borders' here. 


Topic tags: australianidentity, refugees, volunteeringandtakingaction, socialjustice–australia

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