|Accompanying asylum seekers on Christmas Island|
(Christmas Island, Australia) August 23, 2013 — Jesuit Refugee Service pastoral care worker Sr Dorothy Bayliss wrote to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd inviting him to visit Christmas Island, "just to sit for a couple of hours and to hear the asylum seekers’ stories."
There's always a waiting list [for the excursions]. I take them on an island tour — we go around and see all the beautiful sights and it just relieves their stress. I take them to the supermarket, we buy an ice-cream or have a cup of tea.
One day I had asked some asylum seekers to help me sweep away the crabs [Christmas Island red crabs are protected and residents are obliged to sweep them off certain roads so as not to harm them]. Then another vehicle came past and squashed all the crabs they’d just swept!
[In the camps] I’m free to go anywhere, but I schedule myself. There might be some guys roaming around and they’ll chase you and ask you to go and talk to them. Whoever wants me, I go. There’s a big demand, and there’s just not enough time.
Once a week, on Sunday, I put peoples' names down to come out of the center to the local church. It’s a little Catholic church — there’s no priest. Local families run the communion service — they’re wonderful, devout people, and they’re so good to the asylum seekers. I give peoples’ names in to security and they have to check with immigration and if they’re okay then they bring them in a big bus to the church.
Four boats have gone down in the time I've been there. It affects them greatly. I went to see [some survivors] but they wanted to be isolated, they didn’t want to mix with all the other people. They weren't really coping although they were having good counseling. I thought, "How can I help them?" They'd tell me their stories and I said, "Have you ever thought do draw your story or to paint it?" And they said, "We haven’t any pencils or paper."
[Recently] Pope Francis was on an island [near Italy] with refugees and he said we have become globally indifferent, also that we as a society have forgotten how to cry. And that’s really touched me. I think [the attitude to asylum seekers] is ignorance, even from good people. I wrote to [Australian Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd, as an ashamed Australian. I've invited him to come to Christmas Island, just to sit for a couple of hours and to hear the stories. I’m not naïve enough to think that something has to happen as a result but I think we’ve lost our heart, as a nation.
When I first went from direct medical care to pastoral care I thought, "I don’t think I’m any good at this." There’s healing in this work, but it’s invisible. A missionary priest said, "Look at it this way, you helped those mothers in labor and you looked after and brought their children into the world. Now look at it this way: you’re the mother of these boys that have left their mothers." I took a turn then and realized that maybe this is what God is asking of me at this stage of my life. So I’m happy to go back.
As told to Catherine Marshall. Sr Dorothy Bayliss is about to return to Christmas Island for her fifth, three-month stint as a Jesuit Refugee Service pastoral care worker. Learn more about JRS Australia online.