This week is Migrants and Refugees Week. According to Pope Francis, it is a time when we need to think more about ‘charity and humanity’. Recently, Fr Trung Nguyen SJ, Rector of Jesuit Mission, spoke about his experiences in Thailand – a country that was host to his own refugee status decades ago. Currently, Thailand is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and is thus not obligated to provide any care or assistance to refugees. For desperate families who seek freedom from persecution in surrounding countries, particularly Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East, the consequences for refugees being found or overstaying limited visa requirements in Thailand are severe. If caught by the police, they are interned in immigration detention centres where living conditions are worse than prisons. Fr Trung visited one such centre in Bangkok where men, women and children were locked up in cells so cramped that on average, each person only has the equivalent of one square metre of space. Allowed out of these cells only twice per week for two hours; the rest of the time refugees are interned. Fr Trung recounts:
Seeing the living conditions of these refugees, fearful of the police, uncertain, harassed, and mistreated, made me feel that the support we are providing is so crucial. I met John. He and his family had to flee from Pakistan due to persecution for his catholic faith. Pakistani Christians suffer threats, false accusations of blasphemy and are targeted by Muslim extremists, beaten and persecuted. As a father, John wept for his 3 daughters, who have been living in Bangkok for more than 6 years and are still waiting for refugee status. His youngest daughter was born in Bangkok, and he lamented that “these children do not deserve to live like this”.
John’s source of hope and support is from our Jesuit partners. We are able to assist families like his with temporary housing; medical assistance in the immigration detention centre and in emergencies. We do all we can through back door channels to get these people resettled.
It is a deeply human and very tragic story. With over 65 million refugees in the world at the present time – some in detention centres in Australia, it is a problem that intensifies year by year. Conflict, violence, disease, persecution, famine and destitution, along with a litany of other harsh realities of life contribute to the waves of refugees who seek the unknown, which sadly includes Thai detention centres rather than the certainty of daily adversity. It is a problem of colossal proportions that Australia is, to some degree, shielded from. With a forcefield of territorial waters that reach far off shore, Australia does not have the border frenzy that affects so many landlocked and co-joined countries of the world. Like Pope Francis, Fr Trung has appealed for charity and humanity through advocacy and financial assistance, so I pass on his message of thanks to those who have the capacity to take up the cause and make a response.
Last weekend the Boards from the five Jesuit schools in Australia travelled to Sevenhill in the Clare Valley. They gathered to deepen their own understanding of Ignatian spirituality and to consider issues central to the governance of the schools. It was a time of reflection and discernment about the big lens – what the strategic priorities of the coming years are, how to approach them in a very measured and purposeful way, what the impediments are and how they can be navigated. This process occurs every two years, bringing together the Principals, Rectors and Directors of the Boards of all schools in common purpose. Amid the frenetic pace of daily life, the opportunity to step back and analyse the many competing and complex priorities of schools is rare so the importance of this cannot be overstated. On behalf of the wider school community, I extend a sincere statement of thanks to Mr John Wilcox as Chair and the Directors of the Board for their expertise, commitment and generosity that gives Saint Ignatius the quality of governance that enables it to forge its future as one of the most highly regarded schools in the nation.
On Tuesday morning a very sizeable number of prospective parents visited the College to consider Saint Ignatius’ as the future school for their boys. The enrolment cycle for 2021 is already completed so these are families with children who are seeking entry in 2022 and beyond. While the daily operations of the College are consumed with the here and now – Trial HSC Examinations, teaching and learning, leadership formation, pastoral care and the like, the metaphor of tomorrow beckons at every turn. In speaking with these young families, hope-filled and passionate about quality education in a school such as Riverview, I couldn’t help but consider the dichotomy of Fr Trung’s words about the plight of refugee children in Thailand: they are kept indoors for fear of attracting attention, and because of that, they have little opportunity for formal schooling.
Let us be mindful of life’s blessings, of the importance of gratitude as part of the Jesuit way of proceeding, and of course, the adversity that so many of our world live under on a daily basis. And where possible in our own place and time, let us be agents of charity and humanity.
Best wishes to all dads for a special day on Sunday.