Frustrated, at constant risk of being re-detained or, worse, returned to the dangers they fled, they exist in a marginal state of uncertainty.
JRS’ threefold mission is to accompany, serve and advocate for refugees and asylum seekers. In my short time working with the community detention project, my main focus has been the first of these.
Accompaniment – walking with a person – may seem a fairly fuzzy thing. It does not, after all, produce anything measurable on a balance sheet or in a newspaper article. But it still seems to me a ministry in which the close-knit community detention team (of all faiths and none) see and show the face of Christ.
Our clients cannot work or study and, given the difficulty in obtaining police clearances (because they have no papers) have limited volunteering options. Frustrated, at constant risk of being re-detained or, worse, returned to the dangers they fled, they exist in a marginal state of uncertainty.
While the caseworkers (and I who assist them) provide accommodation and a point of access to the limited services available to our clients, we cannot help them obtain visas or advocate for them with the authorities. All that is left is to enter their precarious world of fear and anger and help them find what meaning they can in a state of permanent uncertainty.
Each time I meet my clients, the sense of impotent fear and frustration hangs in the air between us. I keep reliving the third week of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises (the retreat in which Jesuits journey in prayer with Christ), in which the retreatant prays to accompany Christ in his Passion. This may not be Calvary, but it can’t be too far from Gethsemane – an agony re-enacted day after day, year after year. Will the cup of this half-life pass and a visa (if only a transitional bridging one) be granted or will detention centre doors close again behind them? We sit and watch with them, sharing their fear: the horror of the empty bed that bespeaks an (unannounced) revocation of community detainee status and a return to the cells or the joy of a visa granted and the uncomprehending anger or frustration of those whom either decision – inscrutable and unfathomable – leaves behind. Why me? Why not me?
There are, however, other times too. The excitement of a football match or the warmth of a barbecue with volunteers and others in which the cloud lifts briefly and it is possible for clients and we who walk with them to share simple joys – conversation, cooperation, companionship. While we cannot create these moments, one of our most important missions in accompaniment is to make them possible.