A devout Catholic, Rosa Barchin has survived the loss of two children and the dangers of war and displacement. Arriving in 2003, she recalls how difficult it was to find a Catholic church and her dismay at discovering that the community had mass only once a month.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I am a Dinka. I was born in Rumbek but grew in Tonj in South Sudan.
What are your earliest memories?
My father died when I was young and my mother looked after us. She was very good with us. My mother taught us to love everyone and not to cause problems. She also taught us not to take anybody’s things and not to fight with others.
'I went to church the Sunday after I arrived. But when I looked around, I couldn’t see any pictures of Mary or Jesus. The church was empty. And that’s how I knew it wasn’t a Catholic church.'
Did you go to school when you were a girl?
I didn’t go to school but my two youngest brothers did. The youngest passed away when he was in Year 12 and the second youngest finished his education but has since died.
Did you marry while you were still in South Sudan?
I married in Sudan and all my children were born there. I had six children, four boys and two girls. I lost my third child, a boy called Sunday in Khartoum. I don’t know whether he is dead or alive. One of my other sons also died. We had to leave the South for Khartoum in 1986 and stayed there until 2000 when we went to Egypt. We lived in Cairo.
What was life like in Khartoum?
I worked as a cleaner at a boarding school with Nubian girls. They were a mix of Muslims and Christians. One day after I finished cleaning, some of the girls said, 'We need to teach you to learn'. They asked me which book did I want to learn from. I chose the Bible.
How did you come to Australia?
When I got to Cairo, I went for an interview with UNHCR and they asked me where I wanted to go: America, Canada. I said, 'Wherever the UN wants to send me, I’ll be happy'. I didn’t want to choose anywhere.
Six months later, I went to UNHCR again and they took me upstairs.
The person who interviewed me was a lady like you.
She told me, 'Rosa, you have been accepted to go to Australia'.
The lady asked me, 'Do you want to go to Australia?'
I said, 'Yes. I would love to go to Australia'.
I took the application.
When I came out of the embassy, I put the form down and started to pray:
'Our Father, I thank you because my life is very very difficult with my children because I have no husband. And my son is lost. When you accept me to go to Australia with your own heart, I will go there to lead a good life.'
I was so happy because when you believe in God and you ask for God’s help you will be received.
And that is why I have to stick to my faith. I am with my faith all the time.
When did you arrive in Australia?
I came to Australia in April 2003. I went to church the Sunday after I arrived. But when I looked around the church, I couldn’t see any pictures of Mary or Jesus. The church was empty. And that’s how I knew that this wasn’t a Catholic Church.
After the mass ended, I asked people whether this was a Catholic Church.
They told me that it was an Anglican church.
They asked, 'What about you?' and I said, 'I am Catholic'.
They said the Catholic church was very far from here.
One lady was listening and she was Catholic.
She said the Sudanese people go to Lidcombe for mass.
The lady said, 'I will take you next week to Lidcombe'.
Next week, I went to mass in Lidcombe with the lady.
I didn’t know anybody when I arrived in Australia.
I met other Sudanese people when I went to the Catholic church.
Did they have a Sudanese mass every week then?
No. The Sudanese mass was only once a month. I was asking why; we always had mass four times a month but now only once a month.
I kept asking, 'What about the other three weeks? Where do the people have the mass?'
I prayed to Our Father so that we could have the mass every week.
After that, we started having mass three weeks a month at Greystanes and one week a month at Lidcombe.
So, we had mass every week. Now we have mass every week at Blacktown.
I am so happy that we have mass every Sunday and I wear the white clothes of the Legion of Mary.
What were the first months in Australia like?
When I came, everything was easy. Someone took me to Centrelink and organised things for me. My children went to school and are doing well.
Have you had a strong faith since your childhood?
Yes. When I was young, I believed. In 2007, I went back to South Sudan and went to the mission where I was baptised. The church was badly damaged because of the war but a picture of Mary was still up there on the wall.
I knelt in front of it and prayed the Our Father, the Gloria and the Hail Mary.
And then the neighbours told me they were sorry that the priest who looked after the church was not there, that there wasn’t anyone to give me something.
I told them that 'Nobody has to give me anything. I was baptised here and that is why I came back to pray to God. I am so happy it is still here. I always remember this place and give thanks to God and to everyone'.
Do you still have family in South Sudan?
My mum, my two brothers and sister are still in South Sudan. When I went back in 2007, it was the first time I had seen them in twenty-three years. For a long time, I didn’t know if they were alive or dead because we were separated during the war. I only found out they were alive when I arrived in Australia. It was easier to get information on your family in Australia than it was in Khartoum. My family didn’t know whether I was alive either.
Have your children been back to South Sudan?
I have but my children haven’t.
My mother tells me, 'Could you bring your children to see me before my eyes are blind'.
But my boys don’t have any money.
Has it been difficult to keep up the Sudanese culture in Australia?
I have to keep my culture because it is very important to me. Sometimes I sit with my children and talk about it with them.