When Tresa Diing arrived in 1998, there were few Sudanese families living in Sydney. As the first Pastoral Care Coordinator at St Bakhita Centre, she welcomed new arrivals and used her wisdom and experience to assist her community in resettlement.
Where were you born?
I was born in a place called Aweil in South Sudan. I have five sisters. My father was a chief and he had eighteen wives. My Mum was number seven. We called my father's other wives 'Mum'. They were all our Mums.
What was life like as a little girl in South Sudan?
Life was very good. We were close to everybody. We had friends. As a little girl it is not like here, you have to listen to your parents to follow the correct way. From the age of eight, girls know how to cook well. They are very smart.
'Then Sr Janine said she wanted to teach English and I got our women to come. We used the church hall to teach English and I took care of the kids. And that was how we started.'
Did you go to school?
I went to the local primary school. Girls who go to school in Sudan work very hard. You get up early to clean all the house, sweep everywhere and make the tea for everybody. Then you go to school. When you come home, you put your books down and go straight to the kitchen. You cook and clean everything and your time to do homework is after everything is done.
I went to secondary school in Wau. It was a boarding school. I was there from Year 7 to Year 10 and then left to get married. I was seventeen.
How did you meet your husband?
He heard about me and went to ask my family. At the time, he was studying in Switzerland. That is the way you get married in South Sudan. We stayed in Aweil for about a month and then moved to Khartoum because my husband was an MP. When the government moved back to Juba, my husband became the Minister of Agriculture and then Minister of Commerce. We stayed in Juba until 1980 and then moved to Wau.
Do you remember the First Civil War?
Yes. When I was about seven, the Arabs were targeting our family. They wanted the house of the Chief. They wanted to burn the house and all of the things. I was in my Mum's house and we ran at about nine at night. My Mum was carrying my sister. I couldn't forget that for all my life. That was a tough time.
Where were you when the Second Civil War started?
I was in Wau. You could hear guns everywhere at night. It wasn't safe. My husband went to Aweil to get my younger sister and he brought her to Wau. Aweil was burned everywhere. Then we all went to Khartoum. My husband didn't have a job. Life became very hard.
What happened to the rest of your family?
They left Aweil because it was very dangerous at the time. They went to a village to stay near the SPLA. Sometimes the Arabs would come at night, take the cows, burn the houses and kill the people. They would bomb everywhere to kill civilians. We lost some of the women and the kids in my family during the war. It was really bad.
How was life in Khartoum?
We were there from 1984 to 1989. Life was very hard. A lot of Southerners came to Khartoum. We rented a house with three bedrooms but there was sometimes more than fifty people in the house. We left Khartoum when my husband got a job in Alexandria, Egypt with the Sudanese Government.
Was life better in Alexandria?
Life was better because we got money and bought a unit in Alexandria. A very good place. That was when my husband was working.
But in 1994, the Sudanese Government took our passports. We went to renew them and they said, 'Come and collect them in two days'.
Then we received a letter from the Sudanese Government that stated, 'You have now become a rebel. You are on the SPLA side and you are not allowed to have this passport back'.
My husband resigned from his job, left Egypt and went to the SPLA.
I stayed with my seven children, my younger sister and my niece in Alexandria. That time was very hard for our kids at school because if your kids don't have a passport they are not allowed to study.
So how did you come to Australia?
My friend came here first. She is a Muslim but she is my best friend. She lived in Khartoum and was my neighbour. My friend said that 'Australia is a very good country. If your kids are there they will study'. I went to UNHCR.
They said, 'Tresa, where do you want to go Canada or America or Australia?'
I said, 'I want to go to Australia because my friend is there'.
They gave me an application.
I arrived under the Australian Government's Humanitarian Programme on 10 December 1998 with nine children. My husband was still fighting with the SPLA. There were very few Sudanese families here then.
What were your first months like?
The day we came, we were received by the Church of Christ in Pendle Hill. We were all accommodated there. There were two single mothers with big families there already and we were all in the same townhouse. We stayed for two months and there were no fights not even between the children.
After that we got accommodation in Ashfield. It was very hard to get accommodation. We'd go to the real estate agent to get a house and they'd say, 'The house is here' and they would show us a big map and we didn't know how to use the map. We didn't know how to get there. We didn't have a car and were not driving.
And then a Chinese girl working for a real estate agent said, 'How many of you are there?'
and I said, 'Ten people'.
She said, 'What ten people!'
But then she said, 'I will take you'.
She opened the house and it was so nice: six bedrooms.
She gave us that house for $360 per week.
That time was good.
What was the hardest thing in those early days?
The hardest thing was the language. You can do a lot of things if you know the language. To go to the shops, the things you know are now put in a different way, in a different name, an English name. So you go to do the shopping and you spend two hours in the shop because you don't know where things are. Even something near to you, you don't know, you just pass it.
We went to English classes and I learnt some English. This country is a blessed country. All the people, even if you do something wrong they say 'Well done'. They encourage you. Even if you do something wrong, they say, 'You are doing well' and they encourage you so that you do something better.
After two years, I thought it would be better to be a volunteer so I can receive my community if they come. I went to the Immigration Department and said, 'I want to be a volunteer. So if my community comes I can go to receive them, take them to Centrelink, Medicare, the bank, wherever they want to go'.
That is something I didn't have when I came. So I worked with Immigration for two years so if anybody came I could help them.
How did you meet Sister Maria?
One day, Sr Maria saw a family in Auburn and asked, 'Where are you from?' My friend’s cousin said, 'We are from South Sudan' and that is the way we met Sr Maria.
Were you raised as a Catholic?
I was a Catholic from day one. We went to a big church called St George in Aweil. We went to church on Sunday and were doing choir and everything there. Aweil was the Catholic area. My father didn't like the new churches.
How has the Catholic Church helped you here?
When we came here we wanted our kids to go to Catholic schools but Catholic schools were very expensive. We couldn't even afford the uniforms. St Vincent's in Ashfield was helping us and some other principals were very good but we called Sr Maria and we said, 'Sr Maria, we came here because we are Catholic. We want to meet the Bishop'.
She said, 'Okay, organise yourselves and I will take you'.
Sr Maria made an appointment for us to meet Bishop David Cremin. We had a very nice meeting.
What did you want to talk about?
We had four things that we wanted to talk to him about.
First, we wanted to know if there was a church that would give us one Sunday a month to celebrate a Sudanese Catholic mass.
Second, we wanted help to send our children to Catholic schools.
Third, we wanted to help our community who were in Egypt, Uganda and Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya to come to Australia. Some of them had got visas that then expired because they didn't have the airfare.
Finally, we needed somebody to be employed to help our community.
When did you meet Archbishop Pell?
At the end of the meeting, the Bishop said, 'I am going to make an appointment to see the Archbishop'. And so he did.
We went to the Archbishop, George Pell in December 2002 and he was a very good person.
He was smiling and laughing and he said, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, I really appreciate you coming to see me'.
What did he do to help the Sudanese community?
The first thing he did was to talk with the Catholic Education Office so that they could help with the uniforms and the school fees.
Second, he said that Bishop Cremin would see about mass at one of the local churches.
Third, for the airfares, he said he would make an appeal to all the Catholic churches and they did.
And the fourth thing, they would employ a Pastoral Care Coordinator for the Sudanese.
And we were so happy.
So what happened after that?
Then two weeks later, the Catholic churches raised a lot of money for airfare loans when Bishop Cremin made an appeal in The Catholic Weekly.
Then we got the church in Greystanes with Father Peter who said mass once a month for us. At that time, I didn't have a car. There were only three cars in the community. Our cars would pick people up from Pendle Hill station and take them to the church for 2pm mass on Sunday and after mass we would take them back. Then Sr Maria and Sr Helen brought two buses from the Josephite community so they could help us with transport. We were going there for almost a year.
Then Parramatta Diocese said it would be better to go to St Anthony's in Toongabbie because it was near the station. We had a lot of priests volunteer to take turns saying mass so we finally had a mass every Sunday. Alleluia.
So how did you come to apply to be Pastoral Care Coordinator?
At that time, I didn’t think to apply. I thought it would be very hard for me.
When I came back from the meeting we had with the Archbishop, one of my friends said, 'Why don’t you apply?'
I said, 'I don’t want to apply because that is a very hard job'.
She said, 'That's not very hard because you have had workshop training with the Immigration Department: you know how to do this and how to communicate with others'.
I went to Sr Maria and said I wanted to apply.
She said, 'Come to the computer and write what you were doing in Egypt'.
I said we were doing a lot of things. We were organising everything regarding the church and working with the women as volunteers.
I was doing very poor typing and she said, 'Okay, sit here'.
She is a professional Sr Maria, she was typing, 'tck, tck, tck'.
And she wrote the letter for me and the priest wrote a letter for me.
The community also wrote a letter for me. John wrote the letter.
A lot of people applied even some with a university degree. There were five of us.
We went there and did an interview at Polding Centre.
In the interview, I said that I had a lot of experience even if I didn't have a degree. I know how to work with people, how to deal with anything, how to lead other things.
And you got the job?
Yes. I got the job and we started from zero.
We didn’t have a place. I had a desk at St Vincent de Paul’s head office in Lewisham.
After a month, I had a little office at St Dominic’s here in Homebush West. Then Sr Janine said she wanted to teach English and I got our women to come. We used the church hall to teach English and I took care of the kids. That was how we started.
After a couple of months, we got a message from Bishop Cremin. He said, 'Tresa, we have an old convent near the church and that will be your place'. I announced it to the community and we were so happy.
There wasn’t anything here in this place then. It was so empty. We had a computer in my office from the archdiocese. We had another Sister called Sr Geraldine. She was a volunteer coming here every day to help me set up the centre. Sr Maria was also working in the office doing a lot of things after she came back from Sudan. Sr Maria never stopped. She has a lot of energy. We tried very hard.
There were twin brothers, Anthony and Dennis who fixed everything for us. They had to fix the doors, the windows, the kitchen. We used the hall for English classes and the room at the back for computer classes. Then we used this room for sewing classes. We got a lot of things from the Australian community: computers and clothes and food for the people who had just arrived.
I was driving seventy kilometres a day to visit new arrivals and Sr Maria would often come too. There was a wonderful couple, Brendan and Di Fagan who made up baskets for new arrivals with food, clothes, bed sheets, towels and toys. They did this for many, many years. I had to think about how many were in a family and we would make up baskets and take them to Immigration housing or wherever they were. Afterwards, I would call to check how they were going and if they needed anything.
And then we set up the choir in the church. I collected the singers from where they lived. I had to call them to say we were having choir practice. I picked up all the girls and boys. John was the choir master. And now the choir is 100%.
In your early days as Pastoral Care Coordinator, what things in particular kept you busy?
Schooling and the kids. I had to go with the kids and organise the enrolments. That was a very hard time for our kids. Some came here as 12-year-olds. You come to this country with nothing. Nothing. Not talking or reading English. And they put you in an intensive English language centre for one year and then they put you in a classroom with your age group. Your age group who started talking English from day one. Our kids were embarrassed. They didn’t know how to talk and they didn’t know how to read and write. Some of them ran away from school. They thought it was better to stay away from school. So we had a lot of problems with school.
In those days, I would come to the office and five minutes later, get a call from a school: Regents Park, Parramatta, Auburn, Blacktown, even Mount Druitt or Penrith. That was most important because I had to sort any problems, any single thing. If kids were sick and the parents didn’t answer the phone, sometimes I had to go pick up that child. It was a busy time. I thank God that it is better now. That time was very hard.
I also put my name down with the police as a community leader because the older kids were very tricky. They didn’t carry IDs and would give wrong addresses to the police. I was working with Blacktown Police. So some nights I would get a call; they had a kid and he or she didn’t have any ID. I’d say, 'I don’t want to drive' so they would come to pick me up. They picked me up at midnight, 1am and I would stay with the police until seven in the morning. And then I had to be in the office by 8am.
Another issue was the families. Because the kids are the ones who pick up the language quick, they were very smart in the families. Then something happens, the police call and the child becomes the interpreter for the family. He is the one who made the mistake but the family would become very angry with the police. So that was very hard. It was sometimes hard to manage the parents and hard to manage the kids.
So at that time, we faced a lot of challenges.
Why was it so important to have a centre, to have your own meeting place?
We want to keep our culture alive. Let our kids know we have our own culture. We put the sign outside here to show that this centre is named after St Josephine Bakhita, our first saint. That was very important for our kids to know. If we are not forcing them to follow us every step, at least they have this background. They need to know where they come from. We like our children to be born in Australia, to be Australian but we want them to know where their family comes from. That is very important.
And we wanted to educate the mothers. To give them an awareness that this country has different laws from our country. In Australia, we are part of this country and we need to follow all of the rules here.
How did you manage everything?
That was a busy time. I had only one day to do the paperwork: Tuesday. But other days including Saturdays, I had to be here and on Sundays, I had to be at church to see the choir, the Sunday School kids. I used to be there from midday to 5pm.
I was also doing my Certificate III in Community Services and then a Certificate IV; that was two nights a week. I passed my Certificate IV. And I had to cook and clean but my kids were very good, they took care of each other.
So you started your job and the centre opened in 2003? If you look back, what has changed for the Sudanese community?
I am really proud of our kids. Some of our kids are doing really well. We have got a lot of graduates and others are working and have good jobs. Some are still studying. As in any community, there are things that are not perfect. But I think our kids are doing well.
We also have to say congratulations to the women of South Sudan. They have learned English but we still want the women to go to school. Because they are taking care of kids, they don’t have time to do their study but it is very important for the women to do their study.
Even now there are a lot of scholarships. The government will pay for you to study and later deduct it from your wages, which is very good. So do whatever you want, increase your knowledge, your skill. That is my message to the women of South Sudan: do your study.
And what difference do you think St Bakhita Centre has made?
St Bakhita’s makes a big difference to the community. You see the women, they come to the centre because they think they will learn a lot of things.
St Bakhita’s opens the mind of our women: they are doing computers, they are sewing, they are learning English. There is childcare.
All these things come through St Bakhita’s. Even our graduates come from St Bakhita’s. They are the ones I enrolled in school many years ago.
Now that is a big achievement for St Bakhita’s.