When the leaders of the newly formed Sudanese Australian Catholic Community turned to the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney for help in addressing the many challenges of resettlement, St Bakhita Centre was the answer to their prayers.
In 2002, a group of Sudanese elders met with Bishop David Cremin. He was so moved by their story that he took them to see Cardinal George Pell, then Archbishop of Sydney.
The number of Sudanese arrivals was increasing rapidly and the Sudanese leaders knew how difficult those early years in Australia were. Drawing on their experiences both here and overseas, they came together to decide what was needed. Then they did what they had always done throughout the years of war and displacement; they sought the assistance of the Church.
At the meeting, they made several requests of Cardinal Pell. First was the issue of Catholic schools. Devout Catholics, they were dismayed that they could not afford to send their children to Catholic schools. The Cardinal solved this problem by contacting the Catholic Education Office. From then on, South Sudanese children could attend Catholic schools at a reduced rate.
The next issue was the need for a pastoral care coordinator to help new arrivals and support the community. The initial request was for two coordinators; an Australian-born and a Sudanese who would work together to bridge the divide between the fledgling Sudanese and mainstream Australian communities. The elders also asked for a meeting place where they could come together for prayer, Bible study, community meetings, cultural activities and mourning. Named for the patron saint of Sudan, St Bakhita's began in a church hall in 2003 and Tresa Diing was the first Pastoral Care Coordinator. An Australian-born pastoral care worker was not appointed until 2008.
Other requests included a regular Sunday mass in a church near a train station (because not many were driving or had cars at that time) and accommodation for new arrivals. Particularly important was a loan fund which was set up following an appeal by Bishop David Cremin in The Catholic Weekly. Prior to its establishment, Sudanese families in Egypt or in refugee camps had been forced to let Humanitarian visas lapse because they could not afford the airfares. The loan fund which operated for many years provided money to families who then repaid it after they arrived.
One of the main goals of the centre was to educate Sudanese women who often had limited literacy in their own language, spoke little or no English and did not have access to traditional support networks. Many were also single parents of large families. Most of the women had completed the 510 hours of English provided under the Adult Migrant Education Program (AMEP) but found it wholly inadequate to their needs. At St Bakhita's, Australian-born volunteers taught English and cared for the children so that the mothers could learn in classes that were small and nurturing. Over time, other classes were added including Computer, Sewing and OTEN which supported distance learning through TAFE. The playgroup also expanded to provide a school readiness program for preschoolers.
Pastoral care, prayer and faith development have also been central to the centre and the Pastoral Care Coordinators have done everything from liaising with schools, visiting the sick and running sacramental programs. Tresa who was Pastoral Care Coordinator until 2008 was an incredible support to the community during the intense period of new arrivals when Sudan was the leading source country under the Humanitarian programme.
In 2008, an Australian-born Pastoral Care Coordinator was finally appointed to work at St Bakhita's. The person chosen was Sister Maria Sullivan, a former school principal who had ministered to newly arrived refugees since the 1980s. She first met the Sudanese in 2001 and had worked closely with them through Josephite Community Aid (JCA). With the assistance of JCA's young volunteers and other religious, Sr Maria supported the Sudanese in countless ways from supplying fridges and household furniture to sympathising with them as they lost family in the war. It was Sr Maria who arranged for the community leaders to meet with Bishop Cremin and she accompanied them to the meeting with the Cardinal. As a volunteer, she helped set up the centre and was well-known and loved by the Sudanese community even before she took the position.
Anna Dimo became Pastoral Care Coordinator in 2009. Like Sr Maria, she had been involved with the centre since the beginning as a volunteer, had a background in education and was highly esteemed by her community. The combination of Australian and Sudanese Pastoral Care Coordinators allowed even stronger links to be forged between the Sudanese and Australian communities. Sr Maria and Anna came to an agreement that each would use their extensive networks within their communities to expand the education on offer at the centre. Sr Maria promised to get volunteers to teach the Sudanese and Anna promised to make sure her community came to learn. This fruitful partnership made a huge difference to the families and lasted until 2015 when Sr Maria retired.
Nowadays, the centre operates four mornings a week and dozens of women and their children come to learn and connect with each other and the volunteers. The students have a much better understanding of Australian culture but are also trying to retain their own traditions and assist their children negotiate two cultures. Many have gone on to complete vocational courses through OTEN and find jobs.
It is difficult to imagine what life would have been like for this community, if their leaders had not recognised the challenges and sought the assistance of the Archdiocese of Sydney. And the community is forever grateful to Sr Maria Sullivan, Bishop Cremin and Cardinal Pell for helping them when they needed it most.