Debra Vermeer | Diocese of Broken Bay
Life as a migrant in Sydney has been a challenging learning curve for Ethel-Terra Jacks, who moved here with her partner Cyril-Titus to try and live their dream, but in spite of hardship and tragedy she has faced while forging her new life, she says it is her growing faith that has sustained her.
“I found God at a very young age, which is not a common experience, but I am grateful it happened because I had a much longer period to mature in my awareness of God,” she says. “This experience was useful several years later when I needed an anchor.”
Ethel grew up in in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, in a well-educated and well-off family, but had a strong sense of social justice as a child. “I grew up in a very academic and strict household. As a teenager, I thought I could solve all the world’s problems,” she says.
After high school, she took the equivalent of a gap year and went to the city of Kumasi, where she honoured her obligation under the National Service Scheme, teaching English at a primary school. She then started a Political Science degree, leaving university in her first year, against her father’s wishes, to take up work in Ghana’s Internal Revenue Service.
Ethel and her boyfriend Cyril were both active in political organisations and had dreams of working towards a better society. They decided that a move to Australia could help them with those aims.
“Nobody in my family supported us coming here, because we lived a very privileged life and they were worried we might run into unexpected challenges,” she says.
Despite the opposition, Ethel and Cyril came to Australia, but soon found themselves overwhelmed with unexpected challenges. Cyril developed depression which was compounded by the absence of family support and the privileges they were used to back home. "I suggested we return home, but Cyril worried about losing face and having to eat humble pie, so we stayed,” Ethel says.
During those early days in Australia, Ethel and Cyril also had a son, who is now 15 years old. “We were running out of money, but didn’t return home for fear of been labelled failures. Now I understand how all that pressure just swirled into a very bad depression,” Ethel says.
At the height of Cyril’s illness, Ethel realised she was pregnant again, but, feeling hemmed in by the pressure of their dire circumstances, she chose, against Cyril’s will, to terminate the pregnancy. Shortly afterwards, with his depression deepening, he passed away, leaving a shattered Ethel alone in a strange country with their son. “It just seemed like the world evaporated,” she says. “I thought I was going to go insane.”
The lifeline for Ethel during these dark days was the parish priest at Carlton in Sydney’s southern suburbs where they lived at the time, and where their son was baptised. In her late teenage years and first year of university Ethel denounced her Catholic faith, although, at Cyril’s request, she was a regular attendee at Mass with him.
"I was still very much a believer in God and read lots of Christian literature, but just didn’t belong to any denomination,” she says. "Between 2004 and 2006 I was able to evaluate and relate events and life's experiences to my relationship with God during my childhood, adolescence and now adult life." Consequently, in 2006, Ethel reverted to Catholicism and reaffirmed her Catholic faith.
When Ethel and her young son moved to Waitara, Catholic Care provided crucial support for them, with accommodation and legal assistance to apply for residency in Australia. “My parents pleaded with me to return home, but I had a strong desire to strive towards our original dream,” Ethel says. “I was keen to turn our dream into reality, contribute to the community, make a mark and reverse a seemingly dire situation into a triumphant story.”
Ethel qualified for a Skilled Migration Visa. However to be successful, she needed a company to sponsor her. Through CatholicCare, the Broken Bay Diocese stepped forward to provide that support, with Diocesan Business Manager David Penny acting as Ethel’s sponsor. “I was amazed that someone who’d never met me, would do something like that,” Ethel says. “David Penny's extraordinary kindness was immediately etched deep down in my soul. That’s why David has always been in my heart and mind. His unreserved generosity impacted me in a profound way.”
Ethel also made good friends through the local parish. “They are extraordinary people, who welcomed us as part of their families,” she says. Now thriving in Australia, Ethel is doing her utmost to provide wonderfully for her son, who now attends one of Sydney's prestigious private boys’ schools.
When her son was in Year 5, Ethel enrolled part time in an International Communication degree at Macquarie University. After several years of study, she graduated in September. With her graduation ceremony coming up, Ethel tried to track down David Penny, whose support with the Permanent Residency application opened many doors, allowing her to achieve her goals. “Finally, I did find him, and David phoned and said he was very proud of what I’d achieved,” Ethel says. “Former Executive Director of CatholicCare, Deidre Cheers also couldn't be more proud. Their comments meant the world to me.”
Nowadays, Ethel works for the Department of Education and Community Services and started a second job with MultiLit Pty Ltd, a research-based initiative of Macquarie University, which aims to address the needs of students with reading disabilities and similar problems. She is also currently studying Public Policy for her Master’s Degree at the University of Sydney. “I am just so grateful,” she says. “So many people encouraged me along the way.”
One friend who played a special role in Ethel’s life was the late Margaret Gallagher, who she met at a memorial service in Sydney and who she found out was the founder of Pregnancy Help at Brookvale. “Margaret was very important to me,” she says. “If only I’d known Margaret back in 2002, I would not have terminated my pregnancy.”
Ethel, who is part of the Hornsby Cathedral Parish, says her faith is the cornerstone of her new life in Australia. “I take my faith very seriously,” she says. “In fact, my faith underpins my very existence. When confronted with a challenge, remembering I have Christ, who knows every detail brings immediate calmness.”
Looking to the future, Ethel is hoping to start up a service where volunteers can help migrant families to feel a sense of family, by attending football games or school meetings, as a source of support.
“I am eternally grateful to all who have walked next to me and I’m really looking forward now to giving back to this community.”