Accidental ministry opens world of refugees to Australian Dominican

Dominican Sr. Diana Santleben (left) and project coordinator Farida Baremgayabo, a former refugee from Burundi, make plans for Zara's House Refugee Women and Children's Centre in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. (Tracey Edstein)
Dominican Sr. Diana Santleben (left) and project coordinator Farida Baremgayabo, a former refugee from Burundi, make plans for Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. (Tracey Edstein)

Newcastle, Australia — Australian Diana Santleben, of the Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands, has a clear memory of an incident she witnessed more than six decades ago.

“Barbara was a new girl at our school. She was Polish and she came to us with big bows in her hair and a funny dress with long pants underneath. She looked so different and I can still see a mob of kids chasing her across the playground. It was the mob mentality that fuelled the Holocaust, riots in America, apartheid – ‘You’re different from me and you don’t belong.’

“I was with Barbara in secondary school at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield. She became part of my mob and we’ve been friends ever since. I learned that Barbara was her parents’ seventh child and the only survivor. Her father suffered badly in a concentration camp. She was born after the war, their most precious treasure — and look how we treated her.

“I suppose that set a seed for me.”

Today Santleben, 74, is founder of Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in Newcastle. Despite challenges, she has lost none of the determination and vitality that have propelled her in her Dominican life of learning and activism.

Santleben entered the Dominicans after working as an assistant primary teacher. “At Santa Sabina I had seen community in action, the friendship of the sisters and the wonderful education on offer. I wanted all that.”

She loved teaching and served in several congregational schools. In 1980, she was offered a year’s sabbatical at the National Pastoral Institute in Melbourne. “A whole year to do whatever I liked.”

A change of direction saw Santleben work with young teachers in Brisbane, then return to Sydney to parish ministry.

She completed a master’s thesis in early childhood religious education and then, typically, embarked on an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to convince Australia’s bishops to change the system.

While working with deaf children in Sydney in 2000, she received a call from the parish secretary: “There are 12 Africans on the doorstep saying they have nowhere to live.”

She said, “Boil the kettle, make some Vegemite sandwiches and I’ll be down.”

Santleben recalls, “I went to the presbytery [priest’s home and parish office] via the real estate agent where I asked if they had a five-bedroom house to rent — today! Mum and Dad and 10 kids were Sudanese refugees and had been brought to Tasmania from Egypt by the immigration authorities in July. Imagine how cold they were! The parents had saved to bring the whole family to Sydney.

“A number of our sisters were working with refugees coming out of Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and I became a friend of that family — the first Africans I’d ever met.”

This accidental ministry involved, among other things, volunteers sourcing and storing furniture, then delivering when needed.

In 2005, Santleben moved to Newcastle to care for senior sisters and establish a permaculture garden. “I came to Newcastle to live peacefully and quietly; you leave your boats behind.”

God had other plans.

Santleben soon wondered what happens to refugees in the Hunter region. She learned that Josephite Sr. Betty Brown was the go-to person. “I rang her and said, ‘I’m a Dominican — I’ve got a trailer — can you use me?’ “

Brown and Santleben became friends, sharing a commitment to offering care and advocacy to refugee families. Brown had been ministering to refugees in Newcastle but without a base. Together, they established Penola House in a defunct police station. Penola was the South Australian town where St. Mary of the Cross MacKillop founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart in 1866.

The Dominican and the Josephite worked together from 2008 until 2012, when a successful Indigenous land claim made it impossible to remain in Penola House.

Brown has retired but Santleben remains actively involved. She has learned hard lessons about the not-always-fruitful interaction of government agency and not-for-profit organization, congregation and diocese, bishops and lay groups. She saw a new way forward that would hopefully marshal the goodwill of Novocastrians (natives of Newcastle) who wished to support the refugees in their midst.

With a group of generous supporters, Santleben established Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in 2016. Here she offers a mother language literacy program, leading hopefully to English literacy for women and children; early childhood education; classes to assist refugees preparing for the citizenship test; classes in small business development, microfinance facilitation and financial counseling.

Volunteer Monica Byrnes says, “I had long wanted to help refugee women with their English, so I came here. I do what I can to help them converse. We’ve had great times talking about the clothing they’re wearing and had funny fashion parades and we all enjoy a laugh.”

Why Zara’s House?

The center has served two Zaras — an Afghan woman and a little girl — so the name captures the scope of the work. Also, Christians, Jews and Muslims are the children of the book who look on Abraham and Zara (Sarah) as their parents in faith.

Recently, Santleben decided to step back from being projects coordinator. (“Dominicans are itinerants. … We don’t have to be the people who do it all,” she says.)

She needs to concentrate on the greatest work of Zara’s House: advocacy. “The refugee network here is strong, and refugees mostly look after each other, but we’re struggling to save the lives of people who become asylum seekers. The system’s cruelty is breathtaking.”

She shares what she regards as Zara’s House’s greatest success story.

Nurse-midwife Helena, who asked that she not be identified fully, came from Liberia with four daughters when she was about 50 to gain a master’s in public health at the University of Newcastle, Santleben recounts.

“We met the family at a local church — Helena was just another international student. When she was preparing to return to Liberia, she received a letter saying her grandmother had died. Her grandmother was the chief zoe [female cleric and tribal leader] who oversees female genital mutilation. Most of our women here have had that done to them. There’s no medical reason, it’s tradition. It removes any enjoyment of sex, and makes the woman compliant with her husband.

“The letter indicated that Helena would succeed her grandmother. ‘You’re the best person to do this — a nurse and a midwife. … You’ll raise the standard and fewer girls will die.’

“We didn’t hesitate in trying to get a protection visa for the mother and daughters. God’s grace led to a lawyer taking on what she knew to be a very difficult case with little likelihood of success. We interviewed every Liberian man we could find and asked, ‘If you had a wife or a female relative who didn’t want her daughters mutilated, would you insist?’ Every one said yes. Then we asked every Liberian woman we could find — ‘Would you want this done to your daughters?’ All of them said no.”

A psychological profile showed that Helena had profound post-traumatic stress disorder because she had seen female genital mutilation performed many times. She had only escaped undergoing it herself because she’d been relinquished by her father — “another story,” Santleben concludes.

Previously, the government had refused protection to keep her from having to return home because it claimed that the ECOWAS passport common to several West African countries meant that women could safely return to another country. Lawyers at the University of Newcastle demonstrated that this was not so, because women would eventually be required to return to their own country.

Santleben recalls, “The government had no excuse not to give Helena a protection visa and her application was accepted on the first round — an unprecedented outcome. We’re so proud of this!”

Helena and her daughters have been able to stay in Newcastle and remain connected to Zara’s House.

The new projects coordinator, Farida Baremgayabo, has in the past been supported by Santleben and is more than ready to pay it forward. Her enthusiasm and her work ethic echo Santleben’s and she has raised her seven children (four born in Newcastle) to respond to the needs of those around them.

Baremgayabo, a nurse, was living with her husband, Salim, in Burundi, East Africa. As their family grew, the couple became increasingly concerned about the political situation. The elected president had been killed and the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi tribes showed no signs of abating.

The family left Burundi for the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Tanzania, then South Africa, but did not find the peace they sought. The idea of leaving Africa entirely was appealing, so they applied to go to Australia as refugees. The process was long — “a little bit stressful,” Baremgayabo says — and meanwhile she became pregnant with her fourth child.

When the green light to travel to Australia was given, it involved leaving workplaces, extended family, a home and most of their possessions, all in a matter of days.

On arrival in Newcastle, Baremgayabo was told by her case manager that “Sister Diana and Sister Betty will look after you.” They did — even to taking her home from the hospital after the birth of her fourth child. Baremgayabo says, “The sisters became grandmothers to little Aaliyah!”

Baremgayabo is a gift to Newcastle. “I wanted every day to do something for the community.” One day, she drove past Zara’s House to see Santleben laying a path, alone. She said to her son, who was with her, that they needed to help the sister. On another occasion when Baremgayabo was keen to become involved with a project, one of the children said, “Mum, we know you like to help the community — we will look after our siblings.”

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2021 has led to the arrival of Afghan families, joining those who came some years ago. Zuhal, a young woman from Afghanistan, relays, with Santleben’s encouragement, that her brother, Faisal, had been an interpreter with the Australian military and was offered the opportunity to come here with his family. “Faisal brought Mum and his three sisters to Newcastle and now we are all married and have our own families.

“I’m very happy here because here is safety, and Afghanistan is now very dangerous. … So many people have died.”

Volunteer Fiona Firth, a midwife who has helped pregnant refugees, has been assisting Zuhal with her English while Zuhal’s little sons, C.J. and Sabhan, are cared for in the children’s room. Firth says, “The women like being with other women. It’s about citizenship preparation but also about being social.”

Santleben recognizes a strong thread of racism in Australia’s history, including the recent “exploitation of irrational fears around desperate people legally escaping tyranny in boats.”

“However, I believe the tide is turning when I reflect on the daily calls from strangers asking to become volunteers, offering donations and asking what can they do to welcome refugees to Newcastle.”

Did that little girl with the big bows in her hair and a funny dress understand the impact she might have in the end?

50 years after Northern Ireland’s ‘Bloody Sunday,’ survivors still seek justice

A seagull flies in front of a mural which shows a group of men, led by then-Fr. Edward Daly, right, carrying the body of shooting victim Jackie Duddy during 1972's Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland. (CNS/Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)
A seagull flies in front of a mural which shows a group of men, led by then-Fr. Edward Daly, right, carrying the body of shooting victim Jackie Duddy during 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland. (CNS/Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)

Derry, Northern Ireland — As Northern Ireland prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the worst massacres in its history, surviving family members are waiting to hear if a suspected perpetrator can be prosecuted.

“It still hurts as much today,” said Kay Duddy, whose teenage brother Jackie was the first fatality in the Jan. 30, 1972, Bloody Sunday massacre, when British paratroopers fired on a protest against imprisonment without trial.

Duddy, 75, shed tears during an NCR interview at her home as she remembered how the amateur boxer, 17-year-old Jackie, cheerfully went out in his Sunday best to join the march and didn’t return.

he fact that their loved ones were “demonized” by the military who labeled them “nail bombers, gunmen, petrol bombers” spurred her and other family members to campaign for decades until their names were cleared.

After two public inquiries, one soldier was charged. Last July, the prosecution of the paratrooper, named for anonymity as “Soldier F,” was stopped over questions about the admissibility of available evidence.

Duddy joined some families in a legal challenge to this decision. Hearing the case in the Belfast High Court, Northern Ireland’s first female chief justice, Dame Soibhan Keegan, announced on Sept. 23 she would give her decision at a later date. There has not been an update since.

John Kelly, 72, who was “totally devastated” when the prosecution of Soldier F was stopped, was himself on the march and lost a younger brother, Michael.

“I want to see them all punished, every one of them,” he told NCR. “They murdered innocent people.”

Jackie Duddy’s final moments on Jan. 30, 1972, are immortalized in grainy news footage and photographs of him being carried under escort by Fr. Edward Daly, 39, waving a white handkerchief stained with the teenager’s blood.

Also painted on a mural by local artists near where many of the victims were shot, the image has come to symbolize one of the darkest days in Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and the year in which at least 500 people died.

Daly, bishop of Derry from 1974 to 1993, later told Kay Duddy that, as they ran from the bullets, Jackie passed him, looked over his shoulder and smiled. “A shot rang out and [Daly] heard Jackie gasp and fall to the ground,” she told NCR. “He used his hanky to try and stem the blood and managed to give him the last rites.”

Just days before the Bloody Sunday anniversary, doctoral researcher Julieann Campbell, a niece Jackie would never meet, published an oral history: On Bloody Sunday.

Several commemoration events have been planned for Derry including a memorial service, a Families’ Walk of Remembrance and the premiere of the play “The White Handkerchief.

What began as a spirited protest of some 15,000 people carrying banners and singing “We Shall Overcome,” ended with 14 deaths, 13 on the day and another months later, and at least 14 injuries.

The protesters were forced to change their route when soldiers barricaded roads. After some stone-throwing, paratroopers fired a water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and, finally, at least 108 rounds of live ammunition.

Rejecting a quickly appointed British government inquiry, which exonerated the troops, the victims’ families campaigned for decades for a new investigation.

Finally, the Saville Inquiry from 1998 to 2010 concluded that the victims had been killed unlawfully and then-British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for the killings.

Amongst Jackie’s clothes returned to his family in 1972 was a handkerchief embroidered with the name “Fr. E Daly.” Kay Duddy later learned from Daly that Daly’s mother, Susan, had sewed his name on his laundry items when he was away studying for the priesthood.

The Duddy family donated the handkerchief to the Museum of Free Derry, where it is displayed alongside Daly’s stole and a framed photograph of Jackie, which his father William gave him when he became bishop.

The stole was presented by Daly’s nephew, Ger Daly, in 2019. He told NCR it represents an aspect of Bloody Sunday not often highlighted — that his uncle, and the six other priests present on the day, were able give the last rites to those who were killed.

“He was there as a religious spiritual guide to comfort Jackie back to where he came from before he was born, to guide his soul to God,” said Ger Daly.

Daly’s last surviving sibling, retired solicitor Anne Gibson, 74, said she was “filled with great fear” when she received word of the massacre in a telephone call from the parochial house in Derry. In a telephone interview from her home in Belfast, she recalled gathering around the television to watch her traumatized brother criticizing the British Army’s actions in an interview on the day of the shooting.

“We knew this was part of his priesthood and his shepherding of his flock and all we could do at the time was pray for him,” she said.

She remembered how Daly later visited the U.S., “to speak his truth against the stories that were being told by political parties at the time of what happened in Derry that day.”

“He had a passionate desire for peace, it colored his whole bishopric,” she said. “He could never tolerate violence from any side and the desire that the truth of that day be told was his goal.”

After he retired, Daly served as chaplain to a hospice center. It became “his whole life,” she said of her brother, who died in 2016.

Remarking on Daly’s strong working relationship with Anglican Bishop James Mehaffey, Bishop Donal McKeown, Daly’s second successor in Derry, told NCR how churches in Derry have long worked together and how they still seek a joint response to community issues.

McKeown is part of an interchurch group under the umbrella of the Irish Council of Churches “looking at what specific approach we can bring to the whole question of processing the pain of the past,” he said.

“For most people who died during the Troubles, simply getting the truth of what happened will be the best they can expect,” McKeown said.

Kelly told how his brother Michael had a viral infection at age 3 and a doctor suggested he would not survive. When a priest asked his mother Kathleen “to give him up to God” she refused.

Michael recovered and grew into a teenager who loved music, particularly that of glam rock singer Marc Bolan; studied; worked as an apprentice sewing machine mechanic; kept pigeons, and had a steady girlfriend.

His mother initially refused his request to go on the march but relented. Even then she followed him, and after losing sight of him, went to her sister Martha’s apartment for a better view.

“She did apparently see him at one point, and she called out to him but he didn’t hear her,” Kelly said.

While his father John died in 1991, Kathleen lived to see the Saville Inquiry start but died six years before the result.

“She would always ask me what was happening in the inquiry. And we knew that she was coming to the end of her time,” he said. “Eventually I told her that Michael and all the rest were declared innocent. I told her a lie, but it ended up the truth.”

On a recent tour of the streets where the shooting happened, Paul Doherty indicated the spot on Rossville Street where Michael Kelly was shot dead on that “very cold, crisp winter’s afternoon.”

He is not just a tour guide showing visitors the route the marchers followed. Bloody Sunday is personal to him. His own father, Patrick Doherty, 31, was shot dead as he tried to crawl to safety near where Michael fell. Paul was 8 years old.

A man who ran to help Doherty, Bernard McGuigan, 41, was shot in the head.

All along the way from the Guildhall to the famous Free Derry Corner, Paul Doherty greeted passersby, each one either family of a victim of Bloody Sunday or someone who was there.

“I get great satisfaction from telling people from around the world what really happened on Bloody Sunday,” Doherty told NCR.

Then Doherty stopped outside the front of the Museum of Free Derry, opened in 2017 by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Near two large holes from bullets that thudded into the side of the building is a thick rusted steel wall. Into the wall local artist Locky Morris has etched a visualization of the sound of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

‘We just sleep and hope we don’t perish’: 2m in Tigray in urgent need of food – UN

A mother and child queue for food in the Tigray region, Ethiopia.
A mother and child queue for food in the Tigray region, Ethiopia. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

At least 2 million people in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray are suffering from an extreme lack of food, with the 15-month conflict between rebel and government forces pushing families to the brink, the UN’s emergency food agency has found.

In the first comprehensiveassessment the World Food Programme (WFP) has carried out in Tigray since the start of the war, 37% of the population were found to be severely food insecure, meaning they had at times run out of food and gone a day or more without eating.

Families were found to be “exhausting all means to feed themselves”, with 13% of Tigrayan children under five and almost two-thirds of pregnant and breastfeeding women suffering from malnutrition.

“Before the conflict we were eating three times a day but now even once a day is difficult. I was borrowing food from my family but now they have run out. We just sleep and hope we do not perish,” Kiros, a single mother of six children living on the outskirts of the region’s capital, Mekelle, told researchers.

The assessment, which was based on face-to-face interviews with 980 households in accessible parts of Tigray, was carried out from mid-November until mid-December.

However, researchers were unable to travel to areas where fighting is impeding humanitarian access. Moreover, since the assessment was carried out, the needs of the region are thought to have become even more acute as no aid convoy has reached Tigray for about six weeks.

“This bleak assessment reconfirms that what the people of northern Ethiopia need is scaled up humanitarian assistance, and they need it now,” said Michael Dunford, WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa.

“WFP is doing all it can to ensure our convoys with food and medicines make it through the frontlines. But if hostilities persist, we need all the parties to the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause and formally agreed transport corridors, so that supplies can reach the millions besieged by hunger.”

Across northern Ethiopia, where fighting has raged in the regions of Afar and Amhara as well as Tigray, WFP estimates that 9 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, the highest number yet.

In Amhara, hunger has more than doubled in five months, it says. In Afar, where fighting has intensified in recent days between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces loyal to the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, recent health screening data showed malnutrition rates for children under five were at 28%, far above the standard emergency threshold of 15%.

Since the conflict erupted in November 2020, it has been difficult for the UN and other humanitarian organisations to gauge the level of need in Tigray due to a lack of on-the-ground access and telecommunications. The UN has accused the federal government of preventing food and essential medical supplies from coming into the region in a de-facto blockade. The government denies this.

On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had made its first delivery of medical supplies to Mekelle since last September. The drugs are understood to have included enough insulin supplies to last about a month, after medics at the Ayder referral hospital raised the alarm over severe shortages.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization, recently accused Abiy’s government of imposing a “hell” on Tigray by denying entry to medical supplies.

“It is a huge relief that this first shipment is reaching hospitals,” said Apollo Barasa, health coordinator at the ICRC delegation in Ethiopia. “This assistance is a lifeline for thousands of people, and I can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is that these deliveries continue.”