My freedom, what does it mean to me?

Sr Jean McGonigal is a Mercy Sister based in Melbourne.

Sr Jean McGonigal is a Mercy Sister based in Melbourne.

The detainees in our centres across Australia have one wish – their freedom.

My time on Christmas Island was an enriching experience. I was there when our Government had changed its policy to allow “Boat People’s” visas to be processed. This came through before Christmas which meant that by the time I arrived on 13 December, most of the families had already left, and the men were hopeful that they would be sent to Darwin after Christmas where they might receive their visas.

I moved around the compound speaking and listening to the men as they waited for their names to appear on the next list for the plane to take them to Darwin. Word had come through that many of the families who went before Christmas were already living in the community in Australia. As each fortnight went by, the wait became tenser, as each man wondered if his name would ever appear on the fortnightly Wednesday morning list.

There are now about 69 men still waiting, and they will continue to wait due to legal issues. How long they are to wait nobody knows. The detainees in our centres across Australia have one wish – their freedom. They have fled from war and persecution and they are still not free, although most will admit that the Australian Government is providing well for their basic needs.

I appreciated listening to their stories about family, their country, their landing on Christmas Island and their day-to-day life in the centre. I took men out of the centre three afternoons a week. They enjoyed experiencing the beauty of the island, finding coconuts and mangoes, sitting watching the ocean and families swimming, and observing the navy boat keeping guard.

The navy boat had rescued many and brought them to the island. They rejoiced at their freedom, if only for a few hours. Other times they went out it was with Serco, the security personel. There were many hand and body gesticulations as we communicated in limited English. Often, another man would add his interpretation. Sometimes this was helpful, at other times we would just laugh together. Even though they felt imprisoned, there was a great sense of respect, acceptance of their circumstances, and desire to make the most of the situation.

Many just wanted English conversation. My teaching skills often came to the fore as I helped the men understand their English lessons and correct grammar usage in everyday speech. One man said to me that he used to speak good English but now he only spoke “broken English”.

As I reflected on each day, I needed to wait for my brain to become calm from the words busily running around in it after a day of intense listening and speaking slowly. I am now more aware of what it means to be free and how reliant we are on Government policies. I heard several times, “Our people are good, it is because of bad policy and a powerful few that our countries are not safe”.

Jesuit Refugee Services and the Sisters who worked on Christmas Island before me made my work so much easier: thank you! I would also like to say a tremendous thank-you to Susan and Ron D’Cruz, two local people who have welcomed and supported any religious and priests who have come to the island.

I ask your continued prayers for all who seek freedom in our country.

Sr Jean McGonigal is a Mercy Sister based in Melbourne.

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