Archived News Item

The Privilege of Experiencing Many Cultures

Meeting up with Vietnamese women who were at the Sungi Beisi Camp


An invitation to speak at a class of year 10 students about her experiences with Refugees and Asylum Seekers has prompted Breda O’Reilly rsm to reflect on her ministry with this group of displaced people over 23 years.

It was only because I was asked to speak to a Year 10 Class about my experience with Refugees and Asylum Seekers that I realised it was 23 years since I had my first interaction with them.


It was 1994 and I was Principal at the newly established St Simon Peter Catholic Primary School. I had just completed 7 years as the Foundation Principal. At that time Sr Mary Keely worked in the Refugee Camp in Sungi Beisi in Malaysia. We used to do fundraising for Sr Mary and her work with Refugees and Asylum Seekers. I was preparing for three months Home Leave when Sr Mary suggested that I might like to visit her in Malaysia at the Refugee Camp for four days.


For me, it was a shock to the system to see so many Refugees and Asylum Seekers homeless and hoping to move to a third country. Things haven’t changed very much when you consider what is happening at Manus Island.


When I arrived the first day at the Sungi Beisi Refugee Camp, I was allowed to go in and out for four days if I did a job. The job Mary got for me was to interview the women. The only problem was that the women didn’t want to be interviewed! They were sick of it. My interpreter and I tried to coax the women to come and join us.


Finally, one woman agreed. So this is how it went: I said to my interpreter “ask her name”. When the interpreter asked her name she told me – that’s when the fun started! The three of us were having so much fun at the way I couldn’t pronounce Vietnamese names and places we were rolling around with laughter!  Hour by hour more Vietnamese women joined us and we had great fun. Sometimes I would exaggerate a little bit and the laughter would get louder. I did my four days’ work. I’m glad the Refugee Camp wasn’t depending on my answers. The amazing thing is that 23 years later when I’m teaching English and Conversation to Refugees and Asylum Seekers we are still having fun! The only difference is that I can have up to eleven different cultures in my class.


The other amazing thing is that there are two Vietnamese women in one of my classes who actually spent time in the Sungi Beisi. When I told the class my story of going to the Sungi Beisi Camp, they said “yes, we know, we were there!”


In 1995, I went to Broome for eight years to work with Aboriginal people. I started off at the University of Notre Dame training Aboriginal people to be teachers. Then I moved over to work for the Bishop of Broome.


Representing Bosnia and Sudan


It was during my time in Broome that I got a letter from Margaret Sinclair rsm in New South Wales telling me that she used write to an Asylum Seeker at the Curtin Detention Centre. Now he was not there, so he might be in the Broome prison and would I find him.


I went to the Broome prison and found him. I was able to ask the Prison Officers (at the end of my first visit) not to bring him handcuffed when I came to see him because he was a Refugee and not a prisoner. All the times I went to see him after that he never had the handcuffs!


Pre-Intermediate Class 1



Pre-Intermediate representing Iraq, Vietnam and Sudan



His name was Karim Alikhani from Iran. It was the beginning of a long journey with Karim. There are many stories I could tell about my experience with Karim, but it was his treatment by the Australian Immigration that was the worst part of the story. Karim started off as an Asylum Seeker in New South Wales. He was then sent to Curtin Detention Centre in WA. His next move was to the Broome Prison (for breaking a computer).  He was later moved to Port Headland Detention Centre where Sr Mary worked. Karim had told me they were moving to Port Headland. By this time I had moved back to Perth in 2003, so I was able to go to Port Headland for the four day Easter break, stay with Mary and go to the Detention Centre each day. A couple of years later Sr Mary went to work at the Port Headland Detention Centre to discover there was no one there!  Karim told me later that they had handcuffed a Refugee to a prison officer and taken them all at midnight to the Baxter Detention Centre in Adelaide! I was able to see him there because I had a number of meetings in Adelaide (on behalf of the previous Perth Congregation). I would attend the meetings first, then I would go to Baxter for about two days where two Sisters of Mercy lived and both worked at the Baxter Detention Centre.


A couple of years later I got a letter from a Judge through a lawyer in New South Wales to say the Judge would be doing like a Conference Video with Karim Alikhani and that Karim had requested that I be at the video interview. Was I free and willing to do this? I said yes and went to Baxter Detention Centre for this video interview. There are a number of stories to go with this visit but not enough space to write.  So imagine my surprise and delight when Karim rang to tell me that he was a free man! Also, they had given him a choice of where to live and he chose Perth because Mary and I lived there! We saw him many times until he moved to NSW where he got a job in finance (this was his work in Iran before he left as a Refugee).  I lost touch with Karim after that. When they are free they need to lead their own lives! My latest information is that he is back in Iran married and has one beautiful son!


Sri Lankin Family


I was not long back in Perth when I got a message from Meredith Evans rsm to say that a couple from Sri Lanka that she had been looking after were moving to Perth and would I look out for them. I used to visit them, take them out some weekends maybe to the zoo or Kings Park. About a year later they rang me to say that they would like to buy a second hand car. On the phone I said “have you got any money?”  They said yes. I said “how much have you got and where is it?” They replied “we have $2000 and it is under the mattress!”  I applied to the Sisters of Mercy special funding for money to buy a second hand car. They wondered why I needed a second hand car when I already had a car!  I explained that it was for a Refugee family with two small children. I got the cheque from the Sisters.


The family and I went to about six second hand car places! You see Shri the husband knew all about cars and I didn’t know that much! Shri was an owner of a fleet of trucks when he was in Sri Lanka. It was because Shri had two brothers who went missing during the war in Sri Lanka that Shri became very worried about himself and his young family that they had to flee to safety! When we finally got a suitable second hand car after six days and six second hand car places (over a number of weeks) I said to the people at car places “Shri knows all about cars and I am his English language supporter!”


So, when Shri was happy with a particular car, I went up to pay for it with my cash and cheque. The man at the desk said “we don’t take cheques”. I said I would like to speak with the manager! When the manager arrived I said pointing to the family “this family wants to buy one of your cars. Shri, the dad, knows all about cars. Now we would like to pay for this one. Here is our cash and cheque.” The manager looked at me and said “We don’t take cheques”. I said “I’m sure you will take this one because it is from the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea and it is a very safe cheque.”  He went away for five minutes, came back and said “OK, I’ll take the cheque” (Now that’s a win for Refugees). So, we got the car and drove off! So, there is more than one way of helping Refugees!


It was my experience of being in East Timor two years in a row which gave me an understanding of what it was like to live in a foreign culture and not be able to speak the language. So when the opportunity came for me to be a volunteer English teacher at the Edmund Rice Centre, I agreed to do it for eight weeks while the teacher was sick. Five years later, I’m teaching a Pre-Intermediate class and a Conversation class. I can have up to eleven different cultures in my class any week. The following is a list of eighteen different cultures that have been represented in my classes over the past five years: Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Macedonia, China, Sudan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Argentina, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Hong Kong, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Syria, Brazil. I can see their faces as I write their country! The classes are demanding, draining and hard work. We have great fun. We sing and dance as well as read and write! It is wonderful to be able to make a contribution to society by helping people to speak up for themselves. It is indeed a very rewarding ministry, even if it is my volunteer work while I work three days a week at Mercedes College as Pastoral Minister and all that entails.


Messages to: Breda O’Reilly rsm