Local ambassador with big dreams

Dominican Sister Diana Santleben has big dreams and ideas, matched by large helpings of passion, persuasion, commitment and hard work for the many causes in which she is involved; most notably, refugees and ecology.

Local ambassador with big dreams

Known to many as "Sister Di", Diana describes her education at the Sydney Dominican School, "Santa Sabina", as "the best thing that happened to me, the best gift my parents ever gave me." She responded to the expectation she felt to "be ourselves, not clones of others, and to achieve whatever our lot is in life."

 

"I have been arrested in my time," Diana slips matter-of-factly into our conversation.

She was arrested at a demonstration at an arms expo (AIDEX) in Canberra in the mid 1980s and was held for about eight hours, with 11 other women, in a single small gaol cell with a bed, no running water and no toilet.

 

"We talked. We sang. We laughed. We shared the orange and sandwich I had in my backpack. It was the most fantastic eight hours I think I've spent with anyone; because they were such interesting women.

 

"At midnight they came and got us and took us into town where they lined us all up in front of the judge. When it came to my turn to tell him my name, I had no voice. I had absolutely talked myself to a standstill. I croaked my name and heard a cheer from the gallery behind us where there would have been 150 brothers and nuns and priests from all over Canberra and beyond. The word had got out that I had been arrested. It was a wonderful but terrible experience."

 

With local Sister of St Joseph, Betty Brown, Diana established and works in a centre for refugees, Penola House, in Hamilton. "We offer literacy, parenting, women's health, sewing, men's and women's cooking, lawn mowing, house maintenance and English programs. They are facilitated by professional educational authorities, at no cost to our refugees or us. We have a young mother's room, a sewing room, children's play areas, a computer room and storage for donated clothing and other materials."

 

In January, Diana was one of 40 Australians to receive a Prime Ministerial 'People of Australia Ambassador' Award for her contribution to the community through her advocacy and support for refugees, and for her environmental work.

 

Receiving the award from her nominee, Federal Member for Charlton the Hon Greg Combet, she took the opportunity to put him on notice that he hadn't heard the last of her. She asked him to consider some form of compensation for the refugees who have had "terrible experiences on their arrival in Newcastle."

 

"I don't necessarily think that they need to be financially compensated. They need to be brought to some sort of civic gathering where the people of Newcastle and their Federal government representatives are present and we say, 'We are sorry for what you went through when we had lost the plot or weren't watching closely enough.'"

 

Living in an eco house in the Newcastle suburb of Maryland, Diana believes it was her "kidnapping" by other women she greatly admires and respects which led to her commitment to ministering to our environment as well as to refugees.

 

"We have to take responsibility for the rape of our earth. It's as big a sin to be cutting down the rain forests of the Amazon as it is to allow the children to starve to death in a Darfur camp in Africa, or not to care about the bombing of the citizens of Homs. If we're Christians we should all be in pain about that sort of evil in our world."

Diana says she's had to learn to develop a professional distance to avoid burnout. "The fact that I don't have people constantly knocking on my front door is important. Home is the place where I live, where I pray, where I garden, where my dogs drive me crazy, where I cook."

 

Movies are an outlet for Diana, who loves their symbolism, though she is not a fan of many children's movies, finding them patronising.

 

In her early sixties, Diana has a number of dreams she hopes to realise. She sees herself continuing the work of her Dominican sisters and others who have committed their lives to ministry.

 

She pays tribute to an Afghani woman who endured five years with her husband and children in the Baxter Detention Centre. Fearing the impact the prolonged detention was having on her husband whom she felt was losing his will to live, the woman began working with him to make clothes for themselves and the others in detention.

She used all she had at hand: her own bed linen.

 

"She even embroidered them with the single threads her husband removed from the sheets. Some time after their release, she gave me the shirt that she made for herself. I have never worn it. It's an absolute treasure, a symbol of resilience. When you meet people like that you know you're standing on the shoulders of giants."

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