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Catholic Students protest over detention policies SMH 16 Aug 2014

Catholic school kids protest against asylum seeker policies

August 15, 2014
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Amy McNeilage
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Students protest against refugee detention
Sydney's Bethlehem College in Ashfield is just one Catholic School showing its support for asylum seekers.

Catholic schools are taking a stand against children in detention, a policy they say violates basic human rights and is inconsistent with their Christian values.

And, in a public commitment to refugee children, the schools have also pledged to provide free schooling to all refugees in Sydney Archdiocese schools.

Dan White, the executive director of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Sydney, has condemned Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and encourages his students to speak up if they are uncomfortable with the government's policies.

Christian values: Schoolgirl activists at Bethlehem College in Ashfield have demonstrated against refugee policy. Photo: Steven Siewert
“Sydney’s Catholic schools have had a long tradition of encouraging our students to actively engage with social justice issues,” he said. “I just hope that in 20 years time when there is some government inquiry into how we treated children in detention that our young people can stand up and say that at least their voice was heard.”

At Bethlehem College in Ashfield last month, about 50 schoolgirls emerged at lunch time with their student numbers scrawled across tape that covered their mouths. Provocative images of refugees hung from their necks, covering the school crests on their blazers. For the duration of their lunch break, they sat in a square staring blankly at nothing much. They did it every day for a week.

“We got a lot of weird stares from everyone and you felt helpless while you were sitting there thinking ‘why isn’t anyone helping me? Why isn’t anyone asking about it?’ ” year 11 student Sarah Azzi said. “And it’s really symbolic of what’s happening to refugees because they sit in the detention centres, everyone knows they are there, but no one really does anything about.”

The students' silent protest in action. Photo: Supplied
The bold demonstration against the federal government’s refugee policy was part of a remarkable student activist movement that has emerged in Catholic schools.

Students  at Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview, where Tony Abbott went to school, sent the Prime Minister a letter last year condemning his asylum-seeker policies, which, they argued, did not fit with Jesuit ideals.

A number of Bethlehem's students travelled into the city earlier this year to be part of a demonstration that involved removing one thousand dolls, representing children in detention, from a cage.

Students taped their mouths to protest the fact that asylum seekers don't have a voice. Photo: Supplied
Elizabeth Moodey, Bethlehem College’s religious education coordinator, said the event was a pivotal moment for many of her young students.

“They stood in the cage in the centre of the city and they saw all of these adults walking past, not even taking any interest in what was going on,” she said.

The girls told her they “felt like nothing, no one cared, and that’s what these people feel like in detention centres”.

While the school has not experienced any great pushback from parents, it has received a number of dissenting emails from members of the public.

“They ask why a Catholic school is being a part of it,” Ms Moodey said. “And our general response is that it is because we’re a Catholic school and these are our Catholic values.”

Dr White says parents choose Catholic schools “partly because they want their children to have that sort of environment where they’re encouraged to think through these issues”.

His own social justice views were shaped as a student participating in anti-apartheid protests against the Springboks' rugby union tours.

“That was a defining issue for me at the time, the total injustice of the apartheid regime, but in Australia it was very unpopular to demonstrate outside a football ground about a rugby tour,” he said. “I’ve often drawn on that experience as a reminded of how important it is to stand for what you genuinely believe is right.”

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