August 17, 2014

Mercy Community Services Romero Centre, Brisbane Queensland, Australia

One of the programs of Mercy Community Services, a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation, is the Romero Centre - a refugee and asylum seeking support agency. The Centre was established in March 2000 to be a place of welcome and support for “boat people”, who were suffering the legacy of mandatory, indefinite detention and Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs).

The founder of the Romero Centre was the late Sr. de Lourdes Jarrett, a member of the Brisbane Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. She was the original coordinator of Romero and assisted many hundreds of families during her time there. Compassion for strangers and respect for human dignity were the messages that drove her work - and it was on these principles that she devoted eight years of her life to the Centre. All those who visited Romero were touched by the gentle welcome of Sr. Mary de Lourdes who ensured all refugees, regardless of circumstance, received the care that others were unwilling to give.

Today, Romero Centre continues to be a place of welcome and its goal is to meet the unmet needs of people from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Burma, Sudan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan and many other countries. Faiza El-Higzi, in her role as Multicultural Advocacy and Community Development Manager, together with her dedicated staff and army of volunteers provide an array of services today including emergency support, material aid, migration assistance, meaningful engagement such as art exhibitions, volunteer work, activities and programs like English language classes, sewing groups, playgroup activities, use of computers, resume writing, understanding forms, advocacy and speaking engagements. Current refugee policy has seen asylum seekers released into the community on bridging visas with limited financial and practical support. Romero staff work from a three-bedroom house and with three paid staff, assisted 1231 new clients on bridging visas from June 2013 to April 2014.

Mercy Community Services Romero Centre was delighted to receive a Queensland Community Award for recognition of continuing services to assist and support Refugees through fostering community education, human rights and advocacy. Pictured (right) accepting this United Nations Association of Australia award with Faiza are Rebecca Lim, Community Engagement Coordinator and Marcela Moreno, Community Development Worker and Volunteer Coordinator.

Rebecca Lim, the Community Engagement Coordinator, has a long history of working with migrants and refugees, government and the public. She began her career in migration working with Indo-Chinese refugees in an Indonesian refugee camp as a case officer at the Singapore-based US Refugee Program in 1979. She was an immigration officer with the Australian Department of Immigration until she resigned in 2007. Rebecca taught the Australian migration law course at the Australian National University from 2008-2010. She has worked with asylum seekers in Australia’s detention centres from 2010 and most recently in the offshore processing centre in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. In Rebecca’s words, 'It is distressing when government is actively inhospitable, proactively brutal and intentionally determined to break the spirits of people who once imagined they might find protection from oppression in our care. It is a privilege to be with and work with people from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds who trust you to recount and share their displaced lives, their experiences, their journey, their aspirations, hopes and dreams of a safe life. All want to die a natural death.'

Raising community awareness about human rights and information about asylum seekers and refugees forms part of the outreach program. Volunteers go to Brisbane’s detention centre for ESL classes, music, occupational therapy activities for families, and a women’s group activity.

Keeping hope alive is the challenge for those visiting the Detention Centre. Anne, a volunteer, recounts – ‘ a displaced woman, whose life has been shattered by violence and poverty, tells of the brutal murder of her father, three brothers and two sisters. Her mother, desperate to keep her last daughter alive, arranged for her to flee her homeland. She made the perilous journey by boat to Indonesia, then to Nauru and was then placed in a Detention Centre in Australia. In need of urgent medical attention, she has spent 3 months in a psychiatric hospital. Her sense of aloneness, powerlessness and vulnerability has led her to trust in God's care of her and her future’. As Anne responds to her untold deprivation and sadness, she recalls Exodus 3:7 " I have heard them crying out"....

Among the programs provided through the Romero Centre today is the provision of art materials and art classes which enables people to express their feelings in a way in which no words could do. In a recent Romero Centre Newsletter, it is written 'Art breaks down barriers between people and helps us to see that strangers from different cultures have hopes, dreams and inspirations just like own. It is also a great healer which helps people suffering because of war, deprivation and exile express their innermost feelings which range from despair to optimism'. See gallery for some examples of recent art work.

Romero Centre has established strong links with Catholic Parishes and agencies throughout the Archdiocese of Brisbane. Staff from Romero Centre respond to requests from Parishes and Community groups to speak about the work of the Centre and raise community awareness. Denise Laverty rsm and Mahommad Rezaie from Afghanistan recently shared Mahommad’s story with representatives of a Deanery Group in Brisbane. Mahommad gave the group a brief synopsis of the current predicament of ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan as well as an insight into the plight of women in the war torn country. He is pictured here with Denise (centre) and Karleen O’Reilly, a Mercy Associate, who organized the evening at St James Parish Centre, Coorparoo.

In the words of one of the Volunteers at Romero Centre, a Sister of Mercy herself, “Catherine McAuley would be touched by the generous, inclusive ministry of mercy being addressed on the margins of church and society in our time!”

Messages to: Mary Lawson rsm - Brisbane Congregation

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