The convent

Things may have turned out differently had I was given my own safe space when I arrived in Australia as a refugee.

Things may have turned out differently had I was given my own safe space when I arrived in Australia as a refugee.

Comments about this post on ABC Open DRUM – Living alone.

April 1984, I arrived in Australia and stayed at Enterprise Hostel, Springvale in Melbourne. A week later, a religious Sister took me home to a six-bedroom Burwood parish house that accommodated thirteen Catholic Vietnamese refugees and me – a Buddhist.

A couple in their late 30s acted as head of the house and their two young children occupied the main bedroom.
The other eight girls, one girl’s ten-year-old brother and I shared five bedrooms.

Some girls had no relatives in Australia. Some only had married brothers or sisters and could not live with their families.

I dreaded weekends, public holidays or school breaks because they were the time the girls spent with their relatives or boyfriends, and the couple would go out, leaving me alone in the house.

Up until then, I had never lived by myself; I was always with my family. Having no relatives, no close friends and living in a strange country, I felt most lonely at that time.

There were afternoons that I sat on the knee-high brick fence in front of the house watching people passing by to feel less lonesome until it got dark.

At night, I felt the coldness coming from the white fluorescent light in the house that came down and covered my shoulders. The six-bedroom house then seemed like a big, deserted castle.

Apart from the loneliness, I didn’t feel safe living by myself. Recalling news of sexual attacks on lonely and vulnerable girls in Vietnam and Australia made me fearful.

There were weekends and public holidays when I packed my clothes and books to stay with my Vietnamese refugee University female friends.

I mostly went to stay with three University friends – two sisters and an older brother – living in a house they bought. They all worked fulltime while studying part-time. I used to bring food along to share with them until they told me not to. I could sense I was a burden for them. Their brother later turned hostile towards me because I always got higher marks than him on the schoolwork he helped me with. I also once accidentally saw the Playboy pictures he stuck on his bedroom wall then laughed at them – he hated me for that. The last time I went to their house, he told me that he knew I was outside but he wanted to let me sit there for hours without opening the door because he didn’t like me coming.

Occasionally my sojourn was at another University female friend’s high-rise housing commission flat. She lived with her younger brother. We were scared getting into the lift late at night. She also told me stories of creepy characters passing by her flat and prying on her. She seemed to accept her accommodation situation because she liked living by herself. With time, I gradually realised that I was not so welcome in my subsequent visits at her place.

I wished to find a secure place to live and be with other people. I thought of a place – a convent. I wished the nuns could let me stay with them, allowing me to go to University without becoming a nun. I wished and dreamed yet I could never open my mouth to ask. In fact, two Vietnamese refugees as well as former nuns told me that they entered the convent just because they couldn’t live with their married siblings’ families and thought the convent would be a safe haven.

When many girls married and left the Burwood house, the new parish priest filled the house with Malaysian high school students and an Australian couple. The refugee girls didn’t get respect or cooperation from the foreign students.

The Vietnamese priest who founded the Burwood house heard me bemoaning the bad situation there and organised a similar house in Hawthorn. He later asked if I would convert to Catholicism, and Sister Night became my godmother then.

Sister Night was a live-in supervisor at the house and I was Sister’s favourite girl. I accompanied her everywhere. She proudly told people that I was an RMIT undergraduate.

As time went by, study became harder. I couldn’t find time to go out or talk with Sister anymore and I wasn’t concerned as I thought Sister needed time for the newcomers.

I was anguished when Sister began to treat me harshly. When I stood up for myself, she asked me to move out.

I was scared and thought of going to a convent but who would I ask? Here was a nun who wanted to expel me and the other nun I haven’t seen for years and didn’t know how to contact. I also thought of renting and sharing a house with other women, whether they are Vietnamese or Australian but I had no job, not enough money to rent and I knew no one else apart from the University friends and the girls in the Hawthorn house.

My pessimistic personality, my limitations of knowing too few people, not seeing possibility, not trying to seek help, ignorance of social services and counselling and overly trusting nature had flung me into a web of lies, a maze of deception, a trap of manipulation, created by a priest from a nearby order who frequented the house after I asked him to help me find shared accommodation.

Had I lived in a privately rented house arranged by an Australian Christian organisation like the one my friend’s sister shared with other single men and women when she first arrived in Australia, I would not be threatened with evictions by a high-powered nun, sought help and fell victim to a depraved priest.

I didn’t have the option of living alone when I arrived in Australia as a refugee and I was afraid of living alone. Had I been given my own safe space then, I think things would have turned out very differently.

When the night covers the city with a dark shroud,
There was a frightened girl on an empty platform,
She is running away from her loneliness,
Yet it seems loneliness is coming to her.

She dreams of a safe place she can share with people.
She wishes that she could stay in a convent then,
But she doesn’t want to ever become a nun.
Is there such a place to accept her, she wonders!

She lives under a constant miserable cloud,
She has hopes finding refuge and the hopes topple,
She is not welcomed and locked out at her friends’ place.
Her life then shapes her into a refuge beggar.

Into finding her own home, she is cowed,
Then is fooled and led by a man of “principle”!
(Bref-double-style poem)

Image credit
by Rodolfo Nunez.

Things may have turned out differently had I was given my own safe space when I arrived in Australia as a refugee.

Things may have turned out differently had I was given my own safe space when I arrived in Australia as a refugee.

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