In KiSwahili, one of the oldest languages of Eastern Africa, there is a beautiful word, karibu. It has several meanings but is used most often in Kenya at least as a way of saying ‘you are welcome’. Ten years ago I spent a month in Nairobi visiting a number of Loreto schools and communities in this beautiful part of the world. Every person I met, every school I stepped into, from the informal settlement dwellings of Kibera, to churches, convents and cafes, the response to my hesitant offering of habari (hello), was the invariable reply of karibu – and despite the whiteness of my skin and the ‘out of placeness’ of my very presence, I felt welcome.
There is a lot being written, argued and protested in our world right now about ideas of race, skin colour, discrimination, oppression and injustice. A central group of people in Australia particularly who can offer a perspective on these experiences and those of both welcome and exclusion, are refugees and asylum seekers.
On Q&A last week during an episode focused on this topic, one panelist was a young Australian woman, a lawyer, author and activist of South Sudanese and refugee background, Nyadol Nyuon. I was struck by the generosity, empathy and grace of Nyadol’s participation in the discussion; her perspective of what it felt like for her community to be targeted with the ‘African gang’ epithet amongst so many other negative labels in recent years along with the sneers of ‘go back to where you came from’ added to the conversation about intolerance and ignorance, but her most powerful contribution was to firmly and repeatedly remind the audience and other panelists to stop talking and listen to the experiences and perspectives of the First Nation voices around them, those who so often have also been silenced and pushed aside.
The stories and views of people like Nyadol’s own are those to which we need to listen, again and anew in this Refugee Week 2020. As Andy Hamilton SJ has written amidst the noise of a world dealing with a pandemic, nations can turn away from those people who are in most need of our help and protection. We have seen throughout the response to COVID-19 here in Australia how despite the actions of the federal government to assist so many people who have suffered economically, refugees and asylum seekers were excluded from this support, and in many cases Medicare and other social services also, on the basis of their temporary visas. At the same time we have seen those in immigration detention, have their physical health put at risk due to these overcrowded centres and their mental health continue to be affected through uncertainty, fear and the ongoing sense of exclusion, still evident in recent government moves to restrict their rights to even a phone.
The theme for Refugee Week 2020 is ‘The Year of Welcome’. Karibu- you are welcome. As members of the Loreto network in Australia, how do we welcome those who most need our hospitality? Support for the House of Welcome in Sydney through MWIA is one practical way, as is partnership and advocacy with agencies such as Jesuit Refugee Service and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Our Mary Ward Schools Compass points to the ways in which we might bring about longer term change and cultivate an attitude of welcome in our students; they are our future leaders, who will one day make the type of policy decisions for refugees that so often over the last 20 years have focused on exclusion, not welcome. With the aim to “embrace and affirm diversity” the compass points to the importance of our Loreto education forming students who will recognise,
“.. the image of God in human diversity; we encourage the young to discover their interdependence so theyeach find their own dignity– “I am because you are”. (Compass)
I am because you are. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matthew 25: 35)
You are welcome.
For more information, reflection and opportunities to give practical support this Refugee Week: