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Where no two days are the same

Have you ever taken a holiday from technology? Just left the phone at home and headed to a part of the world where Facebook, selfies, FitBits and emails are nowhere near as important as being together, breaking bread, singing, dancing and laughing? Catholic Mission’s Daniel Kuzeff leads school and adult groups on Immersions – ten to twelve-day experiences of deep engagement with a totally different community. Although a thoroughly seasoned traveller, he shares that a recent trip to the Philippines proved that every experience is unique...

I have been fortunate enough over the years to see some amazing work in different countries across the globe. What a wonderful view I have had of humanity, seeing first-hand the compassion and love given to others in need. Earlier this year, however, I witnessed some work that was truly remarkable. I have been travelling to Cebu, a central province in the Philippines, for six years, but until a fortuitous detour in January this year, I had never encountered the work of the Good Shepherd Sisters.

Daniel with Sister Regina second from left standing and staff

I helped Catholic Mission develop a ten-day immersion on Bantayan Island—west of Cebu island—four years ago. On each of the previous trips, the group would return to Cebu just in time for the flight home. On this particular immersion for school teachers from Sydney Catholic Education Office, seven days were spent on Bantayan Island, with 36 of the friendliest, most welcoming families imaginable, before an additional night and day in Cebu. The sole reason for this added time was to ensure a stop at a home for vulnerable women and girls, named the “Welcome House”, run by the program coordinator, Florelie Cuyos, Good Shepherd Sister Regina Kuizon and a team of staff.

As with all Catholic Mission Immersions, we came in knowing that it was going to be a powerful and challenging experience; one that would leave a lasting memory. However, we certainly underestimated the extent of just how intense it would be. As I write this, I am listening to the Francois Mulder song ‘Break the Silence’. It is a stirring song which tells the story of a young girl who is a victim of human trafficking. Even now, my eyes fill with tears as I recall very clearly the dance performed to this very song by twenty young women at the Welcome House, who as children experienced cruel and inhumane treatment at the hands of traffickers.

Sydney CEO teachers visit Bantayan

At this year’s Winter Olympics, Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, the greatest and most awarded ice dancers in the history of the sport, performed for the final time. The energy and emotion that they transferred across to the viewer was remarkable in a magical record-breaking performance that will long be remembered by those who saw it. Watching it myself, I only wished the world could have the opportunity to witness the dance of the courageous, inspirational, amazing young ladies at the Welcome House. As moving as Scott and Tessa’s dance was, it didn’t convey a fraction of the raw emotion of that Sunday in Cebu.

The women, through that song and their dance, told their unique personal stories in their own way. How they gathered the strength to perform for us in the manner they did, I do not know. At one point, during the chorus, one of the girls was dragged into the middle of the dancers who, surrounding her, yelled at full voice and threw money at her in a shocking dramatisation. I covered my face, turning to the rest of the Australian group who were all holding back tears, some unable to hold their gaze. Never again will we witness something so powerful.

Following the dance, we broke up into small groups and spoke with the young women, played volleyball with them, sang and danced with them, and enjoyed lunch with them. They encouraged each other to share their stories with us; Sister Regina and her team consider this a major part of their healing process. For the girls that were newer to the house, this was clearly harder for them. For the Australians, it was a challenge to comprehend just how anyone could inflict that punishment on another human being. Yet, as we listened and got to know each other better, we realised we are similar in more ways than we thought. Soon, we were laughing, sharing and playing games together.

Before we left, the women had one more song to perform for us: Rachel Platten’s ‘Fight Song’. I’ll always remember the determination on their faces as they stood up and sang it aloud. The chorus says plenty:

This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I'm alright song
My power's turned on
Starting right now I'll be strong
I'll play my fight song
And I don't really care if nobody else believes
'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me

Everything about the Welcome House is testament to the dedication of the Good Shepherd Sisters, Sister Regina and her staff in Cebu. The rehabilitation and healing work that they are doing is awe-inspiring. I will forever be grateful for the privilege of spending even a few precious hours with the young women, the Sisters and everyone associated with the work that they are doing there.

Daniel Kuzeff is Immersions Program Officer at Catholic Mission. The organisation operates immersion trips of ten to twelve days for school and adult groups to locations including the Philippines, Cambodia, Timor-Leste and remote Indigenous Australian communities. For more information about Catholic Mission Immersions, you can contact the team on 1800 257 296 or visit catholicmission.org.au/immersions

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