Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ, Director of Jesuit Refugee, Services Australia

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
23 Feb 2010

When Nicaraguan-born, American-educated Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ was ordained in Melbourne on June 30 2007, Jesuit Bishop Greg O'Kelley described him as an "irredeemable optimist who would have admired the iceberg that sank the Titanic."

Laughing, Fr Sacha agrees he is an incurable optimist as well as a lover of nature. "So, yes, I probably would have admired the iceberg – but before it hit the ship and caused such a terrible tragedy," he says.

Along with his unquenchable optimism, a tertiary degree in engineering as well one in theology, and a cosmopolitan background that includes close to a decade as a lay missionary and teacher in Costa Rica, Tanzania and Cambodia, Fr Sacha was "admirably suited" for the priesthood, Bishop O'Kelley said.

As a priest, Fr Sacha has continued to fulfil his long held ambition to serve God and to make a difference in the spiritual as well as daily lives of people around him, especially those in the margins facing hardship, prejudice, and rejection.

"It's an amazing gift to become a priest and to be able to share this with others, through this vocation, the love of God in my life," he says.

In his current role as Director of the Sydney-based Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia, Fr Sacha works closely with other refugee agencies and oversees projects in the Pacific Region and Papua New Guinea as well as maintaining close links with JRS Australia counterparts in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.  In addition he works with the staff and volunteers of the JRS Shelter Project, which offers support services to asylum seekers and refugees in the community in inner-Sydney and helps with such basic needs as housing, employment, financial management, English lessons, and most importantly, personal accompaniment and friendship.

Ministering to refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have fled terrible situations in their own countries, Fr Sacha and the JRS staff provide pastoral care and counsel. They also act as advocates, lobbying to have these people seen not as statistics or numbers but as human beings like you or me.

"Perhaps instead of asking how well the Federal Government is doing in managing asylum seekers and refugees, the polls should be asking ‘How well or not do we think the asylum seekers are being treated?' And if we found ourselves in their shoes, would we want to be treated the same way?" he asks.

The Human Face of Asylum Seekers
A regular visitor to Sydney's Villawood detention centre, Fr Sacha is also in close touch with Australia's offshore detention centre on Christmas Island, through JRS' pastoral presence there.  The  detention centre on Christmas Island is currently filled to capacity with more than 1800 asylum seekers  awaiting processing by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

After a recent visit to the island, Fr Sacha says while he was heartened by "the level of compassion and care" given to those at the detention centre by the Department's staff as well as by other service providers, the reality was that too much was being asked of them. The standard of care staff is able to provided is affected by the sheer numbers of asylum seekers, he says.

"As more and more people arrive at the centre, the longer the refugee status determination processing will take," he says pointing out that one of the reasons for this delay is the lack of qualified interpreters on the island to help with interviews. "
Fr Sacha, together with other leading refugee advocates, would like to see asylum seeker processing relocated to Australia's mainland where many more resources would be available.

"What many of us forget is the acute danger many of these asylum seekers have endured in their bid to reach Australia, and the trauma they have undergone at having to say goodbye to their families and those they love," he says.  "By keeping people in detention for longer periods of time, this trauma is exacerbated."

On his recent visit to Christmas Island, the priest says he was constantly reminded of the families asylum seekers had been forced to leave behind, and how for many of them, the risk taken had not been just for themselves but had been taken on behalf of their entire family in the hope their survival would ultimately ensure the family's survival as well.

"Try to imagine saying goodbye to your wife and your children and not knowing when or if you would see them again," he says, adding that the families left behind were uppermost in the minds of most of those he met while on Christmas Island.

Anguish of Leaving Families Behind
"During one of the Masses we celebrated together, several of the men - most of whom were Sri Lankan Catholics - took out their wallets and showed me photographs of their children and asked me to pray for them. Some could not hold back the tears as I held the photos in my hand and recited the prayers. There was so much emotion in the room."

Earlier in the Mass, Fr Sacha says he and the asylum seekers had prayed for those asylum seekers who had lost their lives at sea or despite their best efforts, had not made it.

"As we prayed together, what struck me was their deep faith and how they had placed all their trust in God. There was no one else they could trust and they truly believed God held them in His hands and would answer their prayers."

For Fr Sacha, the raw emotion and love each of the asylum seekers expressed for their families, and the anguish they felt at being separated from them, conveyed the human face and pain behind what many of Australians see only as statistics, headlines and numbers.

"Numbers of on this or that boat along with media stereotypes and endless polls seem to pervade the current refugee debate. But each asylum seeker is a human being like you and me with a family and loved ones and the desire for a future where his children can grow up safe free from persecution and fear."

Soft spoken and full of compassion, Fr Sacha is seen by many as the ideal advocate for Australia's asylum seekers. But discovering his vocation as a priest  was no overnight decision. Instead as a young man he saw his future as a "married man and father to 10 kids, thank you very much."

"My childhood was spent in Nicaragua," he says describing his background as primarily Spanish and Polish, adding that although his family were devout Spanish Catholics, his maternal grandfather was Jewish.
When he was 14, the family moved t o the US, settling first in Providence, Rhode Island, and later in Texas.  Fr Sacha completed his secondary education in Texas then enrolled at university, graduating with a Masters degree in architectural engineering.

Highly paid jobs followed but gave the young man little satisfaction.

"I was working and making a lot of money but although most people would have thought I had it all, I wasn't happy and didn't feel fulfilled."

In a bid to give his life meaning, he took a year off and headed for Costa Rica where he taught mathematics and physics as well as catechises at a Christian-faith based high school. Then it was back to Houston and his work in building and design. But he quickly realised this was not the life he wanted.

"Service had always been very important to me and wanting to give something back, I thought about volunteering for the Peace Corps."

But a friend intervened and suggested he consider becoming a lay missionary with a Catholic organisation instead.

"By this time I was 27 and after undergoing four months training in New York I was ready for whatever posting I'd be given. Because I spoke Spanish, Latin America was suggested, but I asked if there was anywhere else where there was a greater need, and so I was assigned to Africa?"

One of the Poorest Countries on Earth
Posted to Tan zania, the impoverished country became his home for the next four years.

"Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world and the village where I lived was in the middle of nowhere. Water had to be fetched from the river and there were no phones, no computers and no electricity. The houses were largely mud buildings with no doors, just openings and the kids at the school had no books and often no desk either."

Teaching religion to 150 youngsters who ranged in age from five years old to 11, and included Muslims and Animists, Fr Sacha quickly became used to a drop in numbers at harvest time when the children would help their parents bring in the crops. Along with telling the story of creation and sharing the Scriptures, the former engineer taught the children songs.

Twelve months later, he was assigned to a larger town where along with religion, he taught maths and English as a second language.

"My time in Tanzania taught me many things, one of which was to be grateful for everything I have.  In developed countries we are spoiled and think we need to have everything delivered on time and expect everything to work. We don't think about being grateful for having something as basic as clean water or the fact that we can walk into a room and flick a switch and have electricity."

His years in Africa also showed Fr Sacha the profound faith of people who lived in poverty and who constantly lost children to malaria but who never lost their belief and trust in God.

"I would literally go to one funeral every week. Malaria was the biggest killer and still is, affecting children between two years old and five. But despite the heartbreak of losing these children and their suffering, the Tanzanians believed in God and in God's unconditional love."

Leaving Africa, Fr Sacha was recruited by an international aid agency and after obtaining the appropriate qualifications, began training teachers in various countries throughout Latin America.   Then in 1996, he returned to the missionary organisation that had sent him to Africa. But this time instead of Africa he was sent to Cambodia.

"Tanzania had been poor but peaceful. Cambodia was equally poor but surrounded by violence in a country still recovering from the horror of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge," he recalls.

While working in Cambodia, he met a group of Jesuits working with landmine victims and teaching skills to those who could no longer work in the fields.

"As a child in Nicaragua I'd first heard about the Jesuits but mainly in derisive terms describing them as anarchists or communists. But meeting the Jesuits in Cambodia, I was filled with admiration for their compassion, their faithfulness to God and people in need and for the incredible work they were doing."

Until this time, Fr Sacha says he had only thought briefly about becoming a religious or a priest, mainly when others mentioned the option to him.

Realisation of Priestly Vocation
But his time in Cambodia, and his inspiring experience working alongside the Jesuits there, made him think more seriously about the priesthood as a vocation.

Finally, after a retreat with the Society of Jesus in Thailand, he felt freer to "give this way of life a try."

He says while he wasn't totally sure whether this was what he was "meant "to do, he felt something in his heart that said "perhaps it is."

"I'd enjoyed being a missionary in Cambodia and felt that I might want to come back there some day as a missionary priest, and when I asked the Jesuits in Cambodia where I should go to join, they told me that Cambodia was part of the same Jesuit geographical area as Australia, where I could do my training in English".

After living in seven different countries, 35-year-old Fr Sacha embarked on a new vocation and in 1999 arrived in Sydney to begin his training as a Jesuit priest.

He was ordained eight and a half years later, and 12 months later, became an Australian citizen in 2008.

"I feel at home here, not only in Australia, but also with the Jesuits" he says simply.
Any doubts he initially had about whether this was the path he should follow have been lifted during his journey over the past few years.
"As a priest I feel at peace, joyful, filled with hope and loved, and for this I am deeply grateful.  My life has a purpose, a meaning-to grow deeper and deeper in my relationship with God and to share God's love in my life through presence and service to others."