When Refugee Week is celebrated this month, Anne Haren hopes that people in parishes throughout the Archdiocese will take a moment to reflect on the difficulties and hardships faced by those who have fled their home country and are making a new life for themselves in Adelaide.
For many Australians it is hard to comprehend the danger and upheaval that refugees and asylum seekers have endured, but in her role as pastoral associate at Henley Beach parish Anne is committed to putting a “human face” to this social justice issue.
“Mainstream media often demonises them, portraying them in a negative light, so it is important to change people’s perceptions about refugees. One of the best ways to do this is to create opportunities to connect with them and to listen to their stories.
“These people want to find their own way and they don’t want to be relying on government handouts. They are determined to find employment and become independent. They are very grateful for all the help that they are given and are committed to giving back to community in any ways that they are able.
“They really want to fit in and feel accepted and are desperate to provide a safe and secure future for their children,” she said.
Formerly a teacher at St Margaret Mary’s School in Croydon and prior to that Our Lady Queen of Peace School at Albert Park, Anne is no stranger to working in multicultural environments and in confronting social justice issues head on.
However, it wasn’t until she decided to take a “gap” year in 2014 that she had the opportunity to connect personally with refugee families who were living in the Inverbrackie Detention Centre.
“I learnt a lot about the lives of people coming out here and the issues they faced,” Anne explained.
Her regular visits to the now closed centre led to her assisting families as they transitioned onto community visas which allowed them to live in Adelaide. This saw her calling on the support of her vibrant, caring seaside parish.
“Initially these families had nothing, so I made a request through our parish for financial support and donations such as furniture, clothing and household goods and we had a huge response.
“For the next two years I collected goods from parishioners and friends that were distributed with the help of many generous people including several of our parishioners.
“The beauty of this was that it also gave me a way ‘in’ to the parish to introduce the plight of refugees and to begin conversations about their concerns and their stories. It has been so important to make people more aware and to help them to understand the challenges that these families and individuals face.”
In 2016 Anne was appointed as a part-time pastoral associate at Henley Beach, charged with finding ways to create awareness of social justice issues and initiatives, and to support the development of a Church community that is known for its outreach, justice, mercy and compassion.
One of her early initiatives was to establish a refugee and asylum seeker support group. Over time this has merged with a Circle of Friends group which now supports around 30 asylum seeking families in the community. Many of these are of Hindu or Muslim faith.
As Anne points out, this is a great example of responding to the call of Pope Francis to all Catholics, to go “beyond the church walls and be a visible face in the community”.
Much of her time with the refugee families is spent building friendships and listening deeply as they share their stories, their hopes and dreams, as well as their ongoing fears and concerns.
“It can be really difficult. I’ve cried all the way home sometimes after hearing of the terrible experiences that some have endured, but walking with them on their journey now is an incredible privilege.
“I am very aware that I have received much more that I could ever give and know that my understanding of my faith has deepened greatly as a result of these wonderful relationships.”
Another part of Anne’s role has been to support other existing groups in the parish linked to social justice including Vinnies, CWL, MSC mission group and the Antioch social justice group. Bringing them together to share and reflect on their roles has led to deeper connections and sharing of their work and experiences with all of the parish through talks at weekend Masses.
For the past two years these groups have been involved, together with the Circle of Friends, in providing Christmas celebrations for asylum seeker and refugee families. The CWL assisted with catering, Antioch organised children’s activities, while Vinnies provided presents and hampers through their Christmas giving tree initiative. The events were also supported through the Br Michael Christmas Appeal at Glen Osmond parish and donations from the Christ Church, Wayville.
“It was a truly great experience of community as people of different faiths and cultures came together to celebrate faith, life and diversity,” Anne said.
While obviously passionate about social justice issues, Anne’s friendly nature means she is also a good fit for welcoming people to the parish.
“At Henley, we strive to be a welcoming, inclusive community. We’re a big parish so it’s important to find ways for people, especially those on the fringe, to connect in meaningful ways.”
Anne added that her work at Henley is always complemented by that of co-worker Barbara Conlon, in her extensive role as family faith coordinator within the parish.