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Making a Difference through Advocacy

Shri and his family


Breda O’Reilly rsm shares some thoughts on advocacy.

When I was asked to talk on the topic of advocacy to Year 11 students, my first inclination was to see what the dictionary definition was of advocacy.  This is what the dictionary says:  Advocacy is the act of speaking on behalf of or in support of another person, place or thing.


Other references on the word advocacy include:  argument for, arguing for, pushing for, pressing for, defence of, promotion and acceptance.


Before I looked in the dictionary I knew exactly what the experience of advocacy is in my own life.  As part of the group of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea I very much fit into the following statement:  ‘We are all challenged to respond to situations of injustice and their systemic causes.  Together let us take action and tell others of the situation and ensure our politicians know of our concern about the issue.’


The following are examples of times in which I have been fully aware that I was in the situation of being an advocate:


  • My first intentional experience of being an advocate was when I was working in Broome.  I worked for three years at the University of Notre Dame and then for five years for the Diocese of Broome.  When I was working in Broome I got a message from one of our Sisters in New South Wales to say the she had been supporting an Asylum Seeker in the Curtin Detention Centre for many weeks.  However, the person she was writing about suddenly disappeared and she believed he had been taken to the Broome Prison.  Her request was would I go and visit him in prison.  The person’s name was Karim Alikhani. Karim was sent to prison in Broome because he broke a window in the Curtin Detention Centre by throwing a computer through the window! I was able to visit Karim regularly while he was at the Broome prison.  I continued to support Karim first when he was sent to Port Headland Detention Centre and then to the Baxter Detention Centre in Adelaide. My main advocacy for Karim was to write letters to lawyers and government people and to be present, when invited by a Sydney lawyer, at a video conference at Baxter Detention Centre in Adelaide.  After this conference Karim was freed and came to live in Perth for some time.  He then lived in Sydney for some years and I believe he has gone back to Iran!


  • When I came back from Broome to live in Perth I had my second intentional experience of being an advocate.   I got a message from a Sister in Adelaide to say that a refugee family were coming to live in Perth and would I please support them.  There was a mum and dad and two small children. This family were from Sri Lanka. After twelve months a brother-in-law and his wife also arrived in Perth, so I had two families to support and enjoyed it very much. I supported them for two years before they all moved to Sydney.  The major advocacy experience I remember with them was – helping them to buy a second-hand car.  I took them to about six second hand car places before they were satisfied.  You see, Shri (the husband) knew all about cars. He owned a fleet of trucks when he was living in Sri Lanka. So between his car knowledge and my English we were finally able to get a second hand car that he was happy with.  I was able to get the Sisters of Mercy to support them in buying a second hand car.  Also, I was able to get the garage, where we eventually bought the second hand car, to take a cheque as well as cash that the family had saved and were keeping it under their mattress! It was not the usual practice for this garage to take cheques, but I persuaded them that a cheque from the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea would be a safe cheque!


  • My third experience of being an intentional advocate was at the last election time when I went to do my voting at the voting booth. There was a woman in front of me who was obviously a refugee.  She had two small children and she was in line to do her voting.  The people at the desk were having great difficulty understanding what the woman wanted. In my advocacy role I went up and helped them to realize that the woman was just asking for her voting paper as I was.  I couldn’t stand and see her not being served because she was from another culture!


  • Last year when I was in Ireland on home leave I had an experience of advocacy.  One day I was in a crowded bus in Dublin and I saw a family – a mother, and two young children, and a teenager – getting on the bus. Two or three minutes later they were getting off the bus.  I went up to the bus driver and asked what the problem was.  He said the family did not have the right change and so could they not get on the bus.  I offered to pay the bus fare for the family.  The bus driver did not seem happy that I had offered to do this.  He questioned me and asked if I had enough money on my card.  I said that was not a problem.  I was concerned that it might have been a case of discrimination because the family were from Africa.  When they got on the bus the mother of the three children passed me a piece of paper with the word ‘Blessing’ and a phone number on it  That night I rang the family and we talked.  That’s when I discovered that the word ‘Blessing’ was actually the woman’s name!  I asked them where they were going on the bus.  The mother said they had come to Dublin from Galway to see if they could get their visa to stay in Ireland.  They had been in Ireland for six years already without a permanent visa!


So, we can all be advocates in our own lives if we can be alert to those who are new to this country, especially migrants and asylum seekers and refugees.  The smallest awareness of the need for support can make a huge difference in the lives of people.


Written by : Breda O’Reilly rsm