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Accompanying asylum seekers on Christmas Island

Sr Dorothy Bayliss has been working as a Jesuit Refugee Service pastoral care worker with asylum seekers on Christmas Island for more than 15 months. In June 2013, there were roughly 4,000 asylum seekers housed on the island, more than four times the center's intended capacity. (Jesuit Refugee Service Australia)
Friday, August 23, 2013

(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."

Sr Bayliss, a Sister of Charity and skilled midwife and nurse, has spent 50 years working in developing countries, many of them in Africa. Often the only pastoral care worker on Christmas Island, she accompanies people living in the camps, talks to them, listens, sits with them as they cry, helps them with simple requests. Twice a week she is allowed to take them a few of them out of the camp and show them the island. Here she shares her experiences.

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!

We got back in the car and I said, "Isn’t it terrible, all these beautiful crabs that have been squashed by the carelessness of the car, it’s actually against the law." They were very quiet and I thought I might have upset them by asking them to sweep. I said, "Are you okay?"

They were very hesitant. They said, "Where we come from there are bodies everywhere and nobody removes them from the road, nobody cares. And you people are so upset about crabs."

[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 group of people came up and said "Sister, sister, we’ve been waiting for you." They were all very upset. So they asked me if I would go and talk to them in their compound. When I arrived there, there must have been fifty, sixty men, all very distressed because a lot of their friends had been repatriated.

They said, "Sister, can you please do something?" This is where my frustration is, because there’s nothing I can do. So I just sit with them, I just feel their pain, as they cry. And they’ll say, "Can we pray?" and I pray with them as best I can. I don’t know what religion they are — it doesn’t matter, we just pray together.

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.

But there are many that want to come but can't come, so I go to three different areas in the camps every Sunday [to deliver communion services]. I should go to two other areas as well but I don’t have the time. It’s an ecumenical approach; there’s a deep spiritual need. The Christians all come up for communion, and then they all — Hindus and sometimes Muslims — come up for blessing. I was able to get booklets made [in Vietnamese and Tamil] so that some of them could pray in their own languages.

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."

I was allowed to bring in pencil and paper and what they drew was really shocking. And the guilt — the survivors of course were carrying a lot of guilt. The drawings I think helped them. Next time I went, they’d gone. I didn’t know where they were and I still don’t. I find that difficult, as a pastoral worker — you have no follow up. When I go back now everybody will be new, there will be a lot of new staff and you start from scratch.

[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.

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