At home with Thomas
Monday, November 05, 2012


A JRS shelter in Sydney, Blaiket House, (JRS Australia)
Sydney, 5 November 2012 – Thomas has been one of our clients since the Sydney World Youth day 2008. In Sydney, the Jesuit Refugee Service provides shelter to asylum seekers who are at risk of destitution while they undergo their refugee status determination. One of the shelters, a large parish house next to the JRS office, can accommodate up to 10 men at a time. The proximity of this house means JRS 'shelter clients' are regular visitors to our office and Thomas is the most frequent of all.

When Thomas first came to JRS for assistance he was already struggling with the demands of the refugee determination process, and life in general.  At the same time, Thomas's cooking and cleaning ability, and his concern for the needs of other residents endeared him to us. With a willingness to assist in small chores, he would inform us on the comings and goings of visitors in the house. We also noted that as time passed he was getting thinner, poorer in health and occasionally incoherent.

Over the years, JRS went with Thomas to his various refugee hearings, counselled him in his needs, chatted with him, befriended and accompanied him. At each stage of his refugee determination process, Thomas received negative decisions; he appealed each one and entered into what seemed like spiralling negative pathway, characterised by dashed hopes and occasional irrational responses. In the office, we continued to enjoy Thomas's presence and offer all the support we could to someone who was becoming an old and familiar friend.

One night, two months ago Thomas attempted suicide in our house. The effect of the downward spiral we had witnessed had become too much for him. The night before the suicide attempt I had spotted Thomas at evening Mass, he had chatted with some of the residents in his house and unknown to all had written a desperate email to all the human rights organisations he knew outlining his fears and announcing his wish to end his life.

Thomas was saved by a fellow asylum seeker in his house who happened to be a doctor. He recognised Thomas's distress and overuse of pills, rendered first aid and called an ambulance. Thomas survived this attempt on his life, returned to our house and returned to a spiral of claims and appeals for refugee status.

A friend in need. For JRS, a friend on our watch, accompanied by us, had succumbed to despair. We were shocked, concerned and inevitably asked ourselves questions about our care. In particular we asked if we could have done more? Should we have seen the signs? Thomas's house companions asked themselves the same question. Why, when chatting the night before, hadn't he shared his despair?

Each asylum-seeker companion made his way to the hospital to visit Thomas. Even those without a common language shared a common concern, Thomas.

Thomas has now received a decision on his future. He has been granted a visa and will stay in Australia. He received this news with mixed feelings.

Accompanying asylum seekers is a waiting game. They wait for the decisions they want to hear and JRS rides the emotional journey with them. Our office is a barometer of strong, often unspoken emotions, a place of waiting and uncertainty.

Marianne Loughry, JRS Australia Associate Director