By Jenny Brinkworth
She might be only 4 foot 10 but Sr Pat Sealey isn’t afraid to speak up for what she believes in.
And that includes telling it how it is to the Premier and other officials when she was named South Australia’s top volunteer in a ceremony at the Festival Theatre last month.
The 81-year-old Josephite nun told the audience that the world faced a new holocaust in Afghanistan and that the Hazara people trying to flee the war-torn country were the “new Jews”.
She is well-equipped to comment, working as a volunteer seven days a week to help refugees, many escaping persecution and death, to establish their legal status and make a life in Australia.
“Because of Pat’s work, South Australia now has dentists, artists, engineers, nurses, carers and a range of other people contributing to our society and embracing a chance for a life in safety,” said Premier Weatherill after presenting her with the Joy Noble Award.
The Blackwood Circle of Friends, a volunteer organisation assisting refugees, nominated Sr Pat for the award. In their nomination, they said Sr Pat began volunteering to assist refugees in 2004 and qualified as a registered migration agent in 2007.
After 11 years of living and working with Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, Pat returned to Adelaide in 2004 and was confronted by the plight of refugees. She set off to Port Augusta to work as a visitor at the Baxter Detention Centre where she became such a trusted supporter that she was the only one allowed to visit a hunger striker.
Supported by a local Circle of Friends group, she also worked at a system level maintaining a data base of Baxter detainees and lobbying politicians for change. The result was two-fold: changes to the Migration Act so that babies and toddlers could live in the community with their families while their claims were assessed; and a Government review of all cases of people who had been in Baxter for two years or more. About 90 per cent were deemed genuine refugees and this led to them being granted a permanent visa.
For the past six years she has helped refugees obtain visas to remain in Australia and has assisted family members in migrating to Australia. From her home in northern Adelaide, she investigates and documents cases, arranges translators, submits applications for visas, for reviews and for Ministerial interventions.
In doing so, she listens and documents the details of families separated by war, persecution, torture and death. She helps refugees who are confused and frightened by the complex requirements of making a safe life in Australia possible.
Sr Patricia told The Southern Cross she was “sad” about the political and media debate about asylum seekers. “Australians are decent people by and large and want to help people but they are not being told the truth,” she said.
“My grandfather and uncle fled from the ‘troubles’ in Ireland. I am ashamed that the most vulnerable people on the planet are being used for political gain in our country. We are better than that.”
Sr Pat said hundreds of thousands of Christians were being killed around the world, including in Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and China, while the Hazara people had been persecuted for years and were at risk of being annihilated by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. As a young Hazara student said recently, “it is incomprehensible that Australia is fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan yet the political and media discussion here is so anti-Hazara refugees”.
“We hear the cry from politicians and the media, ‘Stop the boats!’ And people are drowning on unseaworthy boats which is horrific,” she said.
“However, at present, no-one from the Middle East is able to come to Australia on a visitor or tourist visa.
“We do not give enough offshore protection visas so the majority are now coming on partner visas which take a long time to process and are very expensive. The refugee sponsors, the majority of whom came by boat, are working to support their families back in Pakistan (where the Taliban is trying to murder them) or in Afghanistan where they fear that the Taliban will kill them when the Allied Forces leave.”
“Families must do DNA tests, (more money) and then there is the fare for them to come by plane. Meanwhile some of the members of the family waiting in Pakistan for the application to be assessed, (often up to and over 12 months) have been killed in targeted bombings.”
She spoke of a “beautiful and good man” who came to her weeping inconsolably because his wife and 9-year-old son had been killed in an
al-Qaeda bombing targeting Hazara people in Pakistan.
“He sobbed and sobbed…I felt so sad I couldn’t help,” she said.
“Let us open our arms, our homes and our hearts, to asylum seekers as people opened their hearts to those members of our family who, perhaps some generations ago, fled from persecution in their home country and came to Australia so that we could grow up and live in this wonderful country in safety and security.”