June 14, 2005

Catholic Social Teaching and DORAS Luimni

For many years now the Christian churches have tried to give a voice to those who are voiceless, among whom are people who are poor, who are sick and who are refugees. In these times there is an overriding need to be concerned for, and take care of, peo­ple seeking asylum or refugee status in our world. As one poster says ‘Christians should know a thing or two about refugees …… their founder was one.’ (Mt 2:13-23) The flight into Egypt is a story which has introduced Christians from earliest times to the reality of people seeking refuge and safety, and our obligation to provide that security and protection in a more safe and less traumatic situation than would have been their experience. Like Jesus, Mary and Joseph they should be afforded that protection until it is safe to go back to their own place.

Refugees need protection. This means preventing refugees from being returned to a country where they may be in danger of persecution, and promoting their rights in such fields as ac­commodation, education, employment and freedom of move­ment.

In Europe over the past number of years European Union countries have been developing and harmonising their asylum/ refugee and immigration policies. This is happening in the con­text of EU enlargement, an EU Constitution, and political, eco­nomic and military developments. The EU is also developing its trade and other relationships with, for example, Africa. Meanwhile many of the countries of Africa are at war internally for a number of years. These wars, the implications of trade rela­tionships and the repayment of debt to the World Bank are creating situations in Africa and elsewhere leading to major dis­placement of peoples. Wars especially are creating huge num­bers of refugees, within countries, in neighbouring countries and further afield in stable countries such as EU states.

The church has always had something to say about crisis sit­uations. As the church’s social teaching has developed over the years, the emphasis has sometimes been on one aspect and then another and, perhaps because the issue being treated didn’t touch our immediate experience, we may not have noticed the content. With our present experience, we may now have to re­read such documents with more aware and mature eyes and heart.

The social teaching of the church is about creating a just soci­ety as well as a more caring and charitable society. In dealing with refugees and people seeking asylum we need to ensure that we are not just nice, charitable, benevolent people, but brothers and sisters who constantly work so that the life and dignity of the person is protected. This puts an onus on us to be aware of the human rights and the legal entitlements of people. Charity is not enough and often it lets governments off the hook in ensur­ing that people’s legal entitlements are upheld. It is our duty in this area to ensure that states and their agencies work to resolve existing refugee problems and to prevent new ones from devel­oping.

DORAS Luimni, of which I am a member, came about due to the Irish Government’s announcement, in late 1999, of a policy of ‘dispersal and direct provision.’ It was obvious that Limerick, being a major city, would become a centre for people in the asy­lum process.

I had learned from doing preparatory work with local com­munities in other parts of Ireland that unfounded fears, rumours and hearsay take people over. In such situations people say and do things that create an environment that can make life for peo­ple in the asylum process almost unbearable. In Limerick, there­fore, it was important to be pro-active rather than reactive in this situation. DORAS Luimni (Development Organisation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) came into being to offer friendship and support to people seeking for asylum, to be a bridge with the local community, to work with local and nat­ional statutory service providers and to encourage the govern­ment to implement humane and compassionate policies. All this ties in with the gospel call to welcome the stranger.

In Catholic social teaching, the 1963 document Pacem in Terris of Pope John XXIII emphasises the value of human exist­ence and everything necessary to make life comfortable and re­spectful of human dignity. In line with this aspect of the social teaching, groups like DORAS monitor the Direct Provision Centres to ensure that, within the strict Department of Justice guidelines, life is respected, that people are no longer afraid for their safety and that adequate food, shelter and clothing is avail­able. This also entails ensuring that people from differing ethnic or religious backgrounds, who may have been at war in their country of origin, do not end up in the same hostels or indeed sharing rooms with each other as happens on rare occasions. These kinds of details are often only available or come to promi­nence at local level and need to be adequately dealt with to en­sure the safety of people and to ensure that people will not again be traumatised where they have sought safety.

The right to emigrate and to immigrate and the right of polit­ical refugees to migrate, are specifically addressed in Pacem in Terris, which teaches that refugees should be not just tolerated hut enabled to enter into the life of the community, especially the political life. In 2003 Ireland held local elections. All people residing in Ireland on a certain date had a right to vote in these elections. This included migrant workers, asylum seekers, refugees, and people who were temporary residents for whatever reason. It fell to groups like DORAS to open the doors and ensure that the blocks — administratively and legally — were re­moved and these people were enabled to exercise their fran­chise. In Pacem in Terris we are exhorted to be involved in such activity. These same articles, (26, 27) would, as a result of the cit­izenship referendum and the resultant ministerial declaration of 1 January 2005, oblige us to challenge the procedures affecting children born to people in the asylum process who later attain refugee recognition and, as a consequence, relinquish their citi­zenship of their country of origin. These children when born as­sume the nationality of their parents so, when that nationality is relinquished, the situation in relation to the child needs to be clarified. The teaching of John Paul II on the family, Familiaris Consortio (1981), also puts our obligations and responsibilities in the area of the protection of the family unit and of children. This area alone is deserving of a separate paper. The ideal of human solidarity involves us automatically in the lives and rights of such people. What unites us in this whole area is our common humanity.

Art as a means to social solidarity

Pacem in Terris, among other later documents, draws attention to valuing cultural difference and to having the freedom to express such differences. In DORAS Luimni we have discovered the enormous richness of such cultural differences; we have learned how to express difference and how to develop the talents of peo­ple irrespective of language or cultural barriers. We are very lucky in that one of our volunteers happens to be a member of the staff of the World Music Centre at University of Limerick, and another happens to be an artist. Through these contacts and with this expertise available, DORAS has been able to facilitate the development and expression of musicians and artists from around the world. The talents of these people might otherwise have remained dormant and undiscovered, and we would all have been so much less enriched. Through art and music we have also been able to portray a very positive and inspirational aspect of immigration and asylum seeking which off-sets some of the negative stereotyping of people and the negative, racist at­titudes and actions that are raising their ugly heads in lreland at the moment.

These artists have introduced us to worlds that many of us would never have dreamed of before. Many of them paint out of their experience in their country of origin and so we learn through art of the social, economic and political realities in those countries. One person painted a fascinating mosaic of a scene in his country of origin. A particular feature of this work was women’s faces. In his country of origin he would have been be­headed for this painting. This little detail brought home to all something of the oppressive regimes we hear about but often cannot comprehend — that this is reality. These works of art have gone on display in areas from Co Clare through Limerick and to Kilkenny. In each of these places cultural expressions are brought into the lives of people who might otherwise never go to an art gallery and be introduced to such diverse views of the world.

Art can also help to cross socio-economic and cultural boundaries. The clientele of the Limerick Youth Services comes from deprived areas of Limerick city. Some of the people in the asylum process were invited to be students in some of their courses. One such invitation was to join the photography course. It was a marvellous experience, during the display in City Hall, to see how our society was seen through the eyes of someone who was new to our country and our city. It was also so important for the young people to relate to someone who might otherwise have appeared as a threat. Such integration creates social solidarity among people.

Work and human dignity

In DORAS Luimni such social solidarity and integration is en­couraged and developed through voluntary work engaged in by people in the asylum process. Work is the Key as the Bishops so aptly titled their document on the importance of work to our sense of self and to the necessity of contributing to society. For people in the asylum process to work is a criminal offence, so they cannot contribute to society in this way nor can they earn a living. The only way they can work is as volunteers. Many or­ganisations like the St Vincent De Paul, sports clubs and Civil Defence offer excellent opportunities for people to be occupied even if unable to be remunerated with money. The churches are also an excellent source of voluntary occupation. Through these activities people’s dignity is respected, they are occupied rather than bored, they are meeting people, their language skills are improving and they are contributing a valuable service to the community. One extremely negative effect of not earning money is people’s purchasing power is zero. This means the social as­pect of shopping is missing. When people stand in queues they are visible. Removing this aspect of their lives makes them invis­ible and mysterious and, in many cases, contributes to their ex­treme isolation and ghettoisation. These divisions do not con­tribute to a healthy society.

The following story illustrates this point about work and the value of work and how it contributes to our mental, spiritual and physical well-being. Among the people in Limerick at one time was a carpenter. The Vincent De Paul Society accepted him to mend furniture in their store-house. He got about five other people as his helpers, trained them, and together they offered a very good service. It was mutually beneficial to all and went on for some time. This was excellent in terms of implementing the gospel, the social teaching of the church, and Christian charity. But of course, what happened? The head carpenter was moved to Dublin. With this move not only did Vincent de Paul lose a very good service, but this man lost what had given him a huge sense of self worth and dignity, plus all his network of friends and supports. This is just one example of how the state system can work against the social teaching and gospel principles. It also leaves us with a challenge as to how we continue to ensure that human dignity is respected, and vulnerable people are sup­ported and developed in this limbo stage of existence.

Refugee status and the right to work

When people get recognition of their refugee status, they have the right to work, own property etc. In other words, they have all the rights of an Irish national to live life in a normal way, ex­cept the right to vote in national and presidential elections. We often find that they find it difficult to enter the work force and get a fair wage. The social teaching in documents such as Gaudium et Spes, (1965) Justice in the World, (1971) and Laborem Exercens, (John Paul II, 1981) puts forward some principles on proper treatment of workers with some mentioning of the rights of refugees and migrant workers. Often people who get refugee status are so fearful that they accept inhumane and unjust situ­ations at work. In DORAS, we keep in touch with people who have refugee status, and we published a short booklet, Information for Refugees, which is given to each person to enable them to navigate this stage of their turbulent lives. We also en­courage them to join SIPTU, or whichever trade union is most appropriate to their situation. Again we see the importance of collaborating with such agents as the Trade Union movement in forwarding and achieving the ideals of Catholic social teaching. Our aim is to ensure that people’s dignity is respected, and that people have access to fair treatment in the workplace. Many of these people have been terrified and silenced for so long and been victims of unjust systems, we have a duty to enable them to regain their voices. Because some of these people are vulnerable to being caught in unjust systems, structures and institutions, we need to be on the alert in ensuring that these factors do not contribute to unjust work practices and conditions developing and becoming acceptable in our society. This is put very strongly in Justice in the World and the strong message of Laborem Exercens is that nobody who is in another country should be exploited.

The value of a person’s work should be measured according to objective standards and not determined by the colour of a per­son’s skin, race, nationality, religion, political or social grouping. This is also the ideal of the Equality Authority here in Ireland, so again we need to use the tools and institutions of secular society to give the legal backing we need to achieve the aims of Catholic social teaching — a just and equitable society for all where peo­ple’s dignity and rights are respected.

Solidarity and fellowship — challenges for today.

The aspects that challenge us all today, as I see it, are solidarity and fellowship — the cornerstones of Christianity. This means standing beside those who are excluded, victimised, voiceless in our society, remembering that this happens because society (us) organises itself in ways that create exclusion. It is a huge chal­lenge to us to even look at our social, economic, political and cultural organisation and see how we have organised them in such a way as to exclude people, or to say it is alright to prohibit a certain group of people from earning a living. How do we create fellowship among us and between us when our society is structured in such a way as to segregate and exclude? Our call to celebrate this solidarity and fellowship in eucharist is indeed a challenge.

There are many aspects of the life of people seeking asy­lum, the response of DORAS Luimni and its interface with Catholic social teaching that I could explore and expand on, but perhaps I will finish with yet another story. As I walked along the streets of Dublin one day in late November 2003, I was unex­pectedly greeted with joy and acknowledgement. The greeting came from a person who had lived in one of the hostels in Limerick while his application for refugee status was being processed. After his claim was recognised he moved to Dublin. He insisted on bringing me for coffee. It was Ramadan. He would not take even a cup of water but insisted on a coffee for me. We talked and talked. In the course of the conversation he said that the one remarkable aspect of DORAS was that every­one was welcomed irrespective of nationality, colour or creed. He said that people in the hostels learned from the example of DORAS how to tolerate each other, even though in their home countries they would have found this very difficult. The inspir­ation for this approach can certainly be found in the documents from Vatican II, the Ecumenical Council — a prolonged social teaching event. This concept is the inspiration for how to treat the stranger and develop a Christian response in a rapidly changing world.

Catholic social teaching has so much to offer us if we allow it to come into dialogue with the issues of our time and if we explore them from this perspective. It has much to offer groups such as DORAS Luimni in enabling us to respond while being involved in the political issues. It challenges us to progress Christian charity and the work for just structures, enabling all people to live in dignity in societies that respect and protect their rights irrespective of the outside political and economic forces. As Christians we are called to show solidarity with those ex­cluded and on the margins. Catholic social teaching should create this awareness in us and inspire us to respond. As Pope John Paul II puts it in Centesimus Annus:

‘Love of others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the church sees
Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice.’

Reprinted with permission of Ann Scully rsm, author
Ann Scully is a Sister of Mercy and was Founder and Director of Doras Luimni until 2004. She now works at the Justice Desk of the Irish Sisters.

Source: Catholic Social Teaching in Action pp 68-76

Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
The Columba Press
ISBN 1 85607 490 0
Copyright 2005, The Contributors

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