Sister Maria Sullivan has worked with newly arrived refugees since the 1980s. On meeting the Sudanese, she recognised the unique challenges they faced in resettlement and has since been one of their most effective champions.
Would you mind telling me a little about your background?
I was born in Coonabarabran. I grew up on a farm, went to boarding school in Perthville near Bathurst and after school went to university. Then I joined those same Sisters at Perthville, the Sisters of St Joseph and trained as a teacher. My early years were teaching and being a school principal in the Bathurst Diocese.
Was that primary teaching?
No secondary. I tried primary one year and was hopeless but I loved secondary.
'That's why we set up St Bakhita’s because they couldn't learn anything in the government courses. They would do their 510 hours of English and come here and couldn't sign their own name.'
Why did you leave teaching?
When lay people were able to be paid to teach in Catholic schools, I asked if I could move on because I always wanted to be with people on the edge. I really seriously believe that the religious life has to be the conscience of the church and moving towards people who are left out, on the edge.
I started doing youth work in the Bathurst Diocese. I did that for four years and as part of that had a social awareness program with key leaders in the diocese. I brought them down to Sydney to places like Night Patrol and Matthew Talbot. And then I got to see more and more that there was a big need for religious to be in places where other people couldn't be because of finances really.
So I went overseas on a scholarship to look at outreach to people who are poor in 1982 and when I came back I moved to Sydney to do youth work in parishes. But I was particularly keen to be involved with people who are poor and I started working with refugees from Lebanon and Sri Lanka.
Was that the 1970s, 1980s?
It was the 1980s. Those two wars were at their peak in the early 1980s. After a while, a few young people joined me and we started a charity called Josephite Community Aid (JCA) where young people volunteered for a year, like a gap year, to work among newly arrived refugees.
I was constantly moving to newly arrived refugees because they seemed the most in need. Wherever there was a war in the world, we knew we would have those people in Sydney in six months. So there were people from Poland during the Solidarity time, El Salvador, Chile during the time of Pinochet, and then Bosnia. Following Bosnia, there were the people from Sudan.
After about five years, I realised that the people from Sudan were going to be very different from the others because there were so many single women, heads of households with many children.
At first I thought they all belonged to the one woman but then I realised that sometimes they were caring for the children of relatives who had died or been kidnapped during the war.
Why were you drawn to working with refugees?
I think that initial contact was so powerful for me because I had come from the country where it was pretty much a monocultural society. It started with the Lebanese especially, a number of whom had little education. I was running a church youth program called Antioch. In that program, you'd ask parents to write letters to their children to read at the Sunday closing ceremony and I discovered that the parents couldn't write. I had had no experience with people from other countries at all and discovered once I started visiting the families how impoverished they were. They just had so many difficulties with finance, English and their children.
Were these Lebanese Christians?
Some were Christian, some were Muslim, I never asked what they were. But the ones I asked to write the letters were Christian because they had children in the youth group.
What were the main challenges that each refugee group faced? Have they been similar?
No, they haven't all been similar at all. The best way to show that is to contrast the Bosnians and the Sudanese.
The Bosnians who came were from two different groups. The ones from cities like Sarajevo were highly educated, sometimes highly literate in English but literate in at least one language and sometimes three or four. If they were married, they had a nuclear family, two children, Mum and Dad. They came out here with some resources but not a lot because they obviously had to flee. We would help them for a little while but within six months they would be on their feet, up and going. They often had difficulty getting enough furniture, basic things like that but as far as skills went, they had it.
Then there were the Bosnians from rural areas who were less educated. They had more difficulty resettling because they were unskilled but at that time it was easier to get unskilled work and so most of them were able to find jobs.
When the Sudanese came, there was a huge difference. Even the people from rural Bosnia had been to school, had some education. Most of the South Sudanese had never been to school. There had been war in their country since 1956 so whereas in Bosnia the war erupted and was over in five years, in Sudan it had been going on for decades.
Of course, it was different and that was part of the problem. The government sees all refugees as the same. When in fact, there is a vast difference, a huge difference.
When did Sudanese refugees start arriving?
The Second Civil War started in 1983 so how come it took so long for them to arrive?
When it started in the early 1980s, most of them went to Khartoum so they were internally displaced. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the Islamic government started coming down on them in Khartoum as well. Anna would have told you how they closed the Catholic schools. Then most of our families went to Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt. It took time for them to apply to UNHCR. And I think the early ones went to America and Canada.
When did you first become involved with the Sudanese community?
I had been working with the Bosnians and they were getting on their feet. I had heard on the television about the Sudanese so I thought I'd go and see if I could find them. I saw a young boy outside some flats in Auburn. It was Wik's adopted son Kir. He was in Year 5 and spoke English and I met his parents. Wik then introduced me to Anna and to all the rest of the community. That was in 2001.
What were you doing in the beginning?
In the beginning, what we were doing most of all through JCA was trying to get furniture, food and clothes to them because they were destitute. We started to organise a lot of volunteers to go to people's homes to help with English. That was through JCA. A lot of people would go and sort of adopt a family because we didn't have classes and they were too busy trying to get their housing organised and get their kids into schools.
We spent the early years helping them access the services and material goods they needed to settle in. Because they came so quickly that there wasn't an earlier Sudanese community here to help them. There were many family problems, many financial problems, every concept was new. We spent most of the time on hands-on resettlement.
In terms of Sudanese refugees what is unique about their experience?
The thing that was most difficult for them was there had been no infrastructure in their country: there was no gas, no electricity, no telephone, no railway, no bus, nothing. And there was no adult male presence in many homes.
They came from a country that was totally destroyed in terms of infrastructure and then arrived here and had to pay gas, electricity and telephone bills. They had to get their children educated and there was no education system in South Sudan. So not only did many of them come here with no English but it was as if they had been suddenly put on Mars. It was like they came from a parallel universe.
Even the refugees that came from Lebanon knew there was a school system, a banking system, railways and roads. Even El Salvador had basic structures still intact. But it was totally lost in South Sudan and it will be for many years. It is going to take a long time.
Do you think the Australian Government provides enough support for newly arrived refugees: four weeks of accommodation and 510 hours of English?
I think the difficulty is that they have implemented a one-size fits all program.
When the Polish people came during the Solidarity time, there was already a strong Polish community here. There was a Polish club and a Polish church because there was a big exodus from Poland after World War II. When the second wave of Poles came, there were a lot of established systems for them to plug into here.
The same thing happened with the people coming from Sri Lanka the second time. There was an influx from Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s and then there was another one more recently. For the ones coming more recently, there are churches established, there are a lot of things already here. So those people have got systems that they can use.
When the Bosnians came, the provision the Australian Government made for the people who were educated was perfectly all right. There was one girl who wanted to be an astrophysicist and couldn't speak any English. But within two years, she had graduated from Sydney University and had gone on to do research. So for her there was no problem but for Bosnians with limited education, it wasn't enough.
And the same thing with the Sudanese. For the few who were educated then that probably was okay for them but others needed a whole lot of pre-education.
The government needs to distinguish between people that come who are not literate in any language and those who are. It needs to increase the number of hours of special teaching if they are bringing people into the country who are not literate in any language. They cannot give the same number of hours of English tuition to someone who is literate in another language, who may already have a degree and someone who has never held a pencil or been to school. It is completely ridiculous.
That's why we set up St Bakhita’s because they couldn't learn anything in the government courses. They would do their 510 hours of English and come here and couldn't sign their own name. It was just impossible for them.
When did you set up St Bakhita's and how did it come about?
Well, they were the drivers, the Sudanese: Anna and about seven or eight others. With my aunt, Sr Helen Sullivan and the JCA volunteers, we had been meeting them and carting furniture to them. They came to us as a group to ask about getting their children into Catholic schools. Their children were going to public schools because they couldn't afford to send them to Catholic schools.
They were also worried because some in the community were going to other churches because they had not been able to find a Catholic church. Back in Sudan, missionaries were only allowed to preach in certain areas so most people in Wau were Catholic but if they came from Rumbek, they were mostly Anglican. When they came here, they didn't realise the difference between the churches until Anna came and told them.
The other problem was that they had family overseas who were getting visas that were lapsing because they didn’t have the money to pay the airfares and other costs. The Australian Government says it brings in about 12,000 refugees a year under the Humanitarian Programme but it brings around 6,000 and the remainder are sponsored by those who are already here.
The government doesn’t pay for those who are sponsored and accepted as refugees. When you sponsor someone, you have to pay for their airfare and medical checks (which was about $600-700 per person back then). And when they arrive, you have to house them, clothe them, get them to Centrelink, get them a bank account, get their children into schools and get them into English classes. It was a big burden and they needed help.
I said, 'I will take you to the Bishop in charge of Catholic Ethnic Communities, David Cremin'. We went to see him and they told him their story and he said that he would take them to the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. So we all went in to see the Cardinal at Polding Centre in the city. We had a big meeting beforehand and chose John as the spokesman. When we got there, John told the Cardinal that a lot of the South Sudanese were going to other churches and they couldn't afford to send their children to Catholic schools.
The Cardinal was excellent. He said he would speak to the Director of Education to get them into the schools at a reduced rate. They would pay whatever they could afford to pay.
They then asked him for a chaplain and he said that he couldn't give them a chaplain because there were no Sudanese priests in Australia and very few in Sudan. But he would give them a pastoral care worker and a meeting place. The place he gave them was a room in the church hall at St Dominic’s, Homebush West. We could use the hall as well as the room.
A loan fund was also set up with an appeal by Bishop David Cremin in The Catholic Weekly which got a huge response from a lot of ordinary Catholic people.
So the leaders of the newly arrived Sudanese community were proactive in getting support for their community?
People like Anna, Tresa, John and some others were really strong about wanting their own Catholic identity and a Catholic place. None of it came from me because I was going to move on to the next group of newly arrived refugees. The Sudanese were the ones who have actually driven all of this.
So what were the first programs you started here. What was the most pressing need?
The Sudanese asked for help with English. So we started with English classes because so many of the women had been through their 510 hours of English and couldn't read or write. We provided a playgroup because the women couldn't come to class to learn English if they couldn't bring their children. It was a typical Josephite response; what is the practical thing to do?
Four of us Josephites were involved: Sisters Helen Sullivan, Janine Keatinge, Mary Baker and myself. We did what we could to support the community at Greystanes and St Bakhita Centre. We didn’t have any money but the Sisters were generous. Many benefactors also gave us food, clothing, money and other goods; without them we could not have set up St Bakhita’s as an educational centre. We could not access government money because we were not a recognised institution.
When peace was declared in Sudan, you decided to visit the country. Why did you want to do that and what did you learn?
When peace was declared in Sudan in January 2005, there was a lot of hope for the future. I knew I wasn't understanding the Sudanese culture well enough and I asked for time off so I could go to Sudan. I lived there for about twelve months from August 2005 in a village three hours out of Rumbek, called Mapuordit.
When I came back I had learnt so much about Sudan. The first thing was the extreme poverty. It was unbelievable poverty and I had visited Mother Teresa's House of the Dying in Calcutta and I had been with the fisher people in Java but I had never seen poverty like the poverty in Sudan. It was right out of this world poverty. The standard of living was so low that they didn't have any roads, rail, buses or trains, banks, telephone exchanges, proper housing, electricity, gas, running water: nothing.
I also underestimated the complete lack of education. Even though there was a school where I was, that was the only school operating in all of the southern state. Another thing I didn't realise, was how common it was for men to have several wives. It helped me understand why we had so many single women here. I thought they were widows.
Finally, I didn’t appreciate the absolute devotion to the church over there and what the church meant in southern Sudanese society. The church was the main place they came together in the village for anything. They would have parties every so often but it was just after the war and so the only time they really gathered was in the church. And during the war, the churches were bombed many times while they were actually at prayer. The church was part of their war story, part of their social gathering, a central part of their community.
When did you join St Bakhita Centre as Pastoral Care Coordinator?
Right in the very beginning the Sudanese community leaders asked for two people: an Australian-born and a Sudanese to work together. Tresa started in May 2003 but they didn't appoint an Australian. Sr Helen and I just worked as volunteers. Tresa worked so hard helping families resettle and getting kids into school. She was wonderful at visitation: visiting new babies and new families and doing lots of other things with people. She was just fantastic.
So when were you employed as Pastoral Care Coordinator?
It was not until 2008 that I was actually employed at St Bakhita Centre.
Can you tell me how the centre works?
The first few years after the Sudanese arrived, they were too traumatised and fully committed trying to settle in to spend too much time on education. It was full-on resettlement.
When Anna came on as Pastoral Care Coordinator in 2009, we sat down and decided on our jobs. I remembered back to when they first came to me and asked for two people to be employed: a Sudanese person and an Australian-born person. A Sudanese person to work with the Sudanese community to get them involved and an Australian-born person to help them know the Australian way.
So we talked together and decided it would be Anna's job to get the women and men here and I promised I'd get the volunteers to teach them. I loved involving volunteers and had a background in teaching and education administration. The agreement was she'd maintain the students and I'd maintain the volunteers.
Anna has an incredible relationship with her community. She is so highly regarded because she has volunteered with them all her life. She has a great gift of bringing people together. Anna is also a teacher herself and so she had a good idea of how a school should be organised. She didn't understand the Australian way of doing things and she didn't have good English back then but she was wonderful at getting the women to come and encouraging them and visiting them.
So you started with English classes and then expanded...
We had English and added sewing. Then some of the women wanted to do a TAFE course. So I went with Denise down to the OTEN College at Strathfield and talked with them. They were very supportive and offered to work with our tutors here to enrol some of the women into English and Vocational courses. So that started and then computer skills were needed.
Then we started looking at the playgroup and we thought it was really important to have some education so that the older ones would be prepared for school. So we started a school readiness program.
In terms of challenges, would you say that language proficiency is the most important one the Sudanese face?
Yes, language proficiency but also understanding the Australian culture, finding employment and difficulties with their teenage children.
Finding affordable housing is also an ongoing issue. They usually can't afford to buy a home and because they have big families, not many people want to give them rental accommodation. Often the houses they do get are the ones planned for demolition so they are very run down and the real estate managers and owners don't want to do any repairs that are needed later on.
There is a perception that refugees from Africa have difficulty resettling. Do you think that is fair?
I don't know if it is because they are from Africa. I think it is because they are here in big numbers often without male role models. A lot of the difficulty, the perceived difficulty is black boys who are so visible. That can make them a target. That is not to say that they don't sometimes have difficulty settling in but some of the Lebanese did and a lot of the Vietnamese did.
So I think it is a bit unfair. Any group that comes in numbers will have people who fall through the cracks and get into trouble with the law. They shouldn’t then be taken as being representative of that particular group. This is especially difficult for the Sudanese because they are much more visible.
The Sudanese were the first large intake of refugees from Africa and are a highly visible minority. Do you think they have faced some discrimination as a result?
They have faced enormous discrimination and particularly in obtaining work because they can't get jobs. And I think that is due to discrimination to an extent. Our women say if you apply for a job and you turn up and they see you are black, you might as well walk out.
And that happens with the men as well?
Yes, it is the same for the men as well. The Sudanese do have some specific difficulties in that they have come from a place where there was no ordered time. It has been a challenge for them to understand the difference between the Australian and Sudanese concepts of time. We laugh about it but it has been a barrier for them. It has just been so hard for them to realise that time means you have to ‘be there’. It is hard for us to comprehend why they can't get it quickly. And they get blamed for that.
The other thing is their culture demands that care and concern for the community is number one. So if somebody dies they will go and be with that person’s relative. You can't do that if you are working no matter how close you are to that person. There are so many families and they are so big, people are dying all the time in Sudan, and there is all this meeting together for mourning.
So if you have a job, you have to be at the job, but if you are not with your community you are judged by your community for not being there; so they are torn by lots of different value systems.
What about the different gender roles here, has that been an issue?
A lot of the women are really grateful to be here and a big part of what they learn is empowerment, that they have their own rights. Sometimes that has been difficult if they are married because they stand up to their husbands and so a number of marriages have broken down. A lot of them were arranged marriages in the beginning so that has brought its positive and negative aspects.
How important is the intergenerational conflict for the Sudanese?
That is huge. The children go to school and think they know more than their parents because they have more formal education. They are often asked to interpret for their parents.
If there is no man in the house or no strong man when the boys reach their teenage years, it gets very difficult. They seek company with other boys and then they get into trouble. The parents try to get them into sport but sport is quite expensive and they can't afford to take them to sport. So the boys get public transport and then end up on a station afterwards causing trouble.
So it is all the complications: you are poor, you're a single parent and you have a lot of children. There is all of that stuff that happens.
Then there are the girls. When the girls are at school, the Australian girls are talking about what they did at the weekend. There is a lot of exaggeration about clubbing, sex and other things they go on with which the Sudanese girls believe to be absolutely true. They think that is the norm because they have nothing to judge it by. The cultural aspect at school is a huge influence on teenagers. I think it is often not recognised how important it is for newly arrived teenagers.
So these children are moving away from their own community but are not fully accepted by the Australian community…
The Sudanese kids don't have the money to do the things the Australian-born kids do. They don't have the contacts. They don't have the support. A whole lot of things militate against them. A lot of the girls have got and are getting pregnant. Many of our grandmothers are minding children because those young Mums have gone back to school. The grandmothers look after the children.
The girls don't think about using contraception like an Australian girl would?
No, they don't. Even if they talked to their mothers, their mothers probably wouldn't suggest contraception. And abortion is a total no-no in the Sudanese community.
Is it easier for the young men?
I worry about the boys more in one way because many are not adapting to the culture. You think externally they might be, but deep down I don't know how much of that 'new way of being a man' is actually reaching the Sudanese boys at all.
Some of the boys have managed a bit better than the girls in terms of getting into education. They don't have the responsibilities at home. The girls are expected to do the housework, do the cooking, look after the younger children, all those things that have been traditional. And on top of that, they need to get educated.
The boys don't have those expectations so if they want to be educated and some of them do, they can give their total time to being educated. And so there are some boys who have gone through and done well. There are two Sudanese lawyers. But there is a significant group of boys who are ‘lost’ and some of them are in gaol. There are no girls in gaol.
Finally, what has been special for you about being involved with the centre?
I was really touched when I went to visit the families. You’d hear the struggles they had to survive and their children were sometimes doing the wrong thing. There was often nothing I could do but it was very precious to be part of their story. They trust me and I feel immensely privileged.
I am so supported by their deep faith and their sense of community. They really care for one another, they put human values first. To sit with them in times of mourning touches me deeply.
I was also delighted when I saw the students starting to come regularly to school. When they first came, they were really shy and I love to see them now talking and laughing with the volunteers.
I’m touched to see how much they contribute to the wider Australian community and how they enrich our culture.
I love them.