A Refugee Welcomed

Sister Matilda's Story

The plight of refugees and asylum seekers being held indefinitely in detention centres touches the heart of every Carmelite, called to intercede before the Lord for all victims of injustice. For our Hungarian Sister Matilda it resonates with particular insistence.

sr matilda I was born in Budapest. Eighteen months later in December 1944, just hours before the communists arrived, we crossed Lake Balaton in a leaking boat which Dad managed to paddle with a single oar. We had only two small cases with us as we fled Hungary, and my parents were aware that divine intervention accompanied us.

For five years we moved from place to place in Bavaria. My brother was born there. (Two of our sisters had already died during infancy in those difficult years.) Mum had to punish me so that I’d eat my meals, yet said that in her heart she could not blame me, the food was so awful. It was only years later that I wondered what Mum and Dad ate. I surely received the best available. The severe winters were a great hardship for them.

Our situation was fairly difficult when we began a new life here in Australia and two more girls completed our family. We lived in an adapted garage. One day after school I ran in to Mum telling her that Jesus had been a refugee too! Fortunately I didn’t experience the harsh treatment some other ethnic groups received. Still, small children can be cruel at times. When we finally moved into a proper house, Mum turned to Dad - After 12 years of temporary dwellings she had one heartfelt plea: ‘Now let us never move again.’ Before long I was attending daily Mass at Auchenflower Carmel, just 10 minutes away, never dreaming I would one day enter there.

My desire to help people originally made me want to be a nurse, and I was going to work my way around our wonderful country travelling in a campervan. After all, apart from a cultural heritage, we have just about everything that overseas could offer. However the Lord upset my adventurous plans..... He called me to Carmel.

I had understood by then that people’s needs were more complex then merely physical ones. Through prayer and reflection I realised that Carmel did not thwart my desires to help, but actually fulfilled them. Of myself I could reach out only to a limited number of persons and could not penetrate to the ultimate causes of distress. Bur God could - if I opened myself to the creative Love longing to be allowed into our world to heal and transform.

The difficult years of poverty and loneliness I’d been through turned out to be a blessing, preparing me for the solitude of Carmel where ‘God alone suffices.’ While I don’t limit my prayer intentions to refugees, I can naturally identify with their plight - whether they are on the move, in camps/detention centres, or struggling to build a new future. It hurts me as an Australian to see that they are not welcomed today as generously as our family was over 50 years ago. It’s like an incurable wound, despite the many who do take newcomers to their heart and work for their interests. Yet the truth is that the dividing line between acceptance and rejection does not run through a population, but through my own heart. My personal efforts to be welcoming in my attitudes, thoughts and actions are not unimportant. I may be unaware of the consequences, but we are all linked to each other and affect each other - God’s inclusive love can become operative through us.

As a child I had been thrilled to know Jesus was a refugee, and now in the mystery of our common union in him, I can be in solidarity with today’s refugees when I meet lesser versions of their experiences: disappointment, hurt, poverty, rejection, helplessness, bewilderment, not belonging, vulnerability, indignity.... the list seems endless. I trust that Jesus can multiply my small offerings to nourish and support countless others.