Experiencing the Outback
One of my first awe-inspiring moments in Australia was in the city of Adelaide. As I watched the sun set over the St. Ignatius College campus, the sky turned a magnificent orange-pink color. Exotic natural birds flew through the air, and all I had to do was sit back and take it all in. I quickly realized that the natural beauty of Australia brought about a sense of wonder and amazement. Yet, I was a visitor, and this transition into a new country brought itself its own challenges.
This past year, my religious superiors had asked me to partake on an international pastoral assignment. I was missioned to work with Jesuit Refugee Services, Australia. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, started Jesuit Refugee Services to address the urgent needs of people fleeing persecution, violence, and aggression. JRS in Sydney surprisingly ministered to the poor and vulnerable asylum seekers, who were lucky enough to make it to its shores. Their main ministry primarily dealt in two areas: advocacy on behalf of refugees, and running detention centers for Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). In Australia, if you arrive by boat seeking asylum, the government places the arrivals in a mandatory detention facility. These jails hold the arrivals until the government can process them visa and formally declare them refugees. I worked part time in one of the detention centers outside of Sydney’s and also in the main office at Kings Cross near the harbor.
My job at Marsfield, a suburb outside of Sydney, was one of listening and accompanying. This particular center housed men from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. They fled their war torn countries in hopes of living a life away from corruption, death, and despair. Many of their friends and family members were either tortured or killed—sometimes in front of them. As I looked into their eyes, I saw sorrow, anger and frustration. While many were grateful for escaping and surviving, in the end, they found themselves “stuck” in detention. Most could not afford to bring their families leaving most of them behind. Until the government declared them refugees, they could not bring their loved ones over. This process could take weeks, months, and at times years.
One afternoon, I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with three asylum seekers. As they shared their story, one man from Afghanistan left behind his wife and two year old son in hopes of getting a visa. He felt anxious and angry for being “stuck” in detention. He said, “in Afghanistan you die quickly with one bullet or bomb, but here in Australia, you die slowly in detention.” I listened as he clenched his fist and shared how much he missed his wife and son. He asked me, “What can you do for me?” I said, “I can pray for you, and share your story.” I realized my only gift to this man was prayer and accompaniment. I could neither change the system nor write recommendations to speed up his refugee process. There were caseworkers and professionals more equipped and knowledgeable than I. Yet, in prayer, I lifted this man up in God’s hope.
The Afghani man thanked me for listening, and for my prayers. He said that in sharing his story, I had a responsibility to share with other Americans his struggles to be free. To be honest, I was more grateful for his sharing. God gave me this man’s story to hear suffering, not so that I could merely say, “thank you for sharing”, but to really listen and to pray. To understand that even in suffering, we can be signs of compassion, hope, and understanding for one another.
We may not always comprehend the mess of the world with all of its sadness and despair. But in faith, as a Christian and as a Jesuit, I know God is not a passive actor, but through his people gives us one another to support, love, empathize, and pray for each other. I know God reaches out to that man in the friends around him, in the caseworkers that help him, and in me, who simply listened.
It may not seem like much, but being a Jesuit means paying attention in prayer and to the people around us. When we pay attention, we understand a little more of the mystery of God. By doing so, we recognize hope in a space of chaos, order in disorder, and love in an environment of neglect, frustration, and hate.
Alex Llanera, SJ is in his third year of philosophy studies at St. Louis University.