Sydney, March 11, 2011 — “If you found yourself in the footsteps of an asylum seeker, how would you like to be treated yourselves? What kind of welcome would you like to receive?” This is the question asked of school students around Australia as they prepare to enter the annual Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Youth Award, an event held with the aim of raising awareness of the plight of refugees and stimulating debate around asylum seeker policy.
Now in its third year, the award offers students in Years 9-12 the opportunity to meet and interact with refugees, learning about their stories and coming to an understanding of the impetus behind forced migration.
Rwandan refugee Therese says the award plays an important role in informing people about realities which aren’t always reported in the media. “They need to hear what is going on around the world, because they never hear about it otherwise,” she says.
Lawrence, from Kenya, concurs, pointing out that it is important for young Australians to engage with refugees. ‘They can know exactly the situation that is faced by refugees. They can have a chance to ask some questions,’ he says.
Working in small groups, students in Years 9-12 research their refugee-related themes and produce a diverse range of multimedia entries that include movies, websites, artworks and even rap songs. The titles of many of the past entries have reflected the educational power of the award.
“We are all human,” “Imagine if we traded places,” “See the real me, not the refugee”: these all recognise the human dignity of asylum seekers and refugees, ordinary people who having lived through and survived some extraordinarily painful circumstances, are now in search of safety, freedom and peace. Through these projects students have also acknowledged that, as fellow human beings, they have a responsibility to respond with compassion and solidarity to the plight of these most vulnerable people.
“The JRS youth Award isn’t just about speaking up on behalf of refugees, it is about is opening up a space for refugees to speak for themselves in a world that often just wants to drown out their voices,” says the Director of JRS, Fr Aloysius Mowe SJ.
“The young people who participate in the award will one day be the opinion shapers and decision makers in this country. Who knows how the exposure they get now from this competition will eventually help change the attitude that Australia has towards refugees?”
Whilst the award is offered by the Australian arm of JRS, this international Catholic organisation has an extensive network, working with 500,000 people in close to 60 countries. The organisation’s mission is to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees and forcibly displaced people.
In Australia, JRS bases its priorities on urgent local needs, focusing in particular on areas where no-one else is working. It aims to equip asylum seekers and refugees with information and skills to make their own decisions and to find solutions to the problems that impact their lives.
Thus JRS strives to support refugees and asylum seekers in the community with basic needs through its Shelter Project, offering them accommodation, financial assistance, legal and health referrals, English classes, and job search assistance to those with permission to work.
“Just think what would happen to people if [organisations such as] JRS were not here,” says Levi, an East African asylum seeker previously supported by JRS Australia. “We would be on the street.”
Bearing in mind the long-term consequences of migration, JRS Australia also conducts research and advocacy into forced displacement, particularly in the Pacific Region, using this information to advise government and NGOs on policy and program responses. Moreover, it works with government and other refugee advocacy groups to develop a fairer asylum process and more dignified treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. JRS also regularly visits Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre in a pastoral role and provides pastoral services on Christmas Island and at Curtin Detention Centre in WA.
“The presence of JRS pastoral workers and volunteers in the detention centres is very simply a ministry of presence,” says Fr Mowe.
“Asylum seekers often feel bewildered by the complex bureaucratic and legal processes that confront them, and it seems that the trajectories of their lives are being decided in far off places by faceless others. Our presence is meant to give them hope, to tell them that there are people who are interested in them and believe that they have a future, that they are not just so much flotsam and jetsam in a sea of despair.”
Both Scripture and Catholic Social Teaching have much to say about people who have been forced to move: how we are called to welcome the stranger, respect their human dignity, uphold the common good and be in solidarity with those in great need. Ultimately, JRS Australia strives to put these principles into practice and encourage as many others as possible to do the same. It is truly about being in solidarity with them, trying to imagine ourselves if the place of those fleeing persecution and generalised violence and then working for the kind of responses which we would hope to encounter if we were in their place.
To find out how to enter the 2011 JRS Youth Award or to support JRS Australia go to www.jrs.org.au