German religious sister Juliana Seelmann wanted to be a nurse who was close to the dying. By a twist of fate, she ended up in the reception centre for asylum seekers – where she found her true vocation. Yet in 2021, her commitment to refugees and people in need brought her before the judge. We accompany the Franciscan sister from Oberzell on a typical day.
A trip to Assisi and the first meetings with the Franciscan community plant a small seed in the heart of Juliana, who was born in 1983 in a village near Würzburg, in Bavaria. She stays in touch with the Franciscan religious sisters, meets the sisters of the community of Oberzell, attends orientation days and spends weekends with the community — and thus, the seed begins to germinate.
But the journey to enter the convent is still long. Initially, the nurse is certain that her vocation is to accompany the gravely ill and dying; in 2009, when she is 26 years old, Juliana decides to join The Servants of the Holy Childhood of Jesus of the Third Order of Saint Francis, also known simply as the “Franciscan Sisters of Oberzell”.
As fate would have it, in 2009 Sr Juliana is called to collaborate at a welcoming centre in Würzburg. She accepts and some months later affirms: “I can no longer leave this place”. Her presence alone produces so much good…
In her work with refugees, Sr Juliana is aware of the great parallel with the work of the Order’s founder, Antonia Werr, who in the mid 19th century dedicated herself to women who were released from prison, helping them integrate into society.
About 450 people – women, men and children – live at the welcoming centre for asylum seekers just outside Würzburg. Ages range from newborns to elderly, all cared for by a team of people, like at a medical office.
At the welcoming centre, when it comes to things people have in common, origin and religion have no weight; what matters is helping those who are struggling. Often, shares Sr Juliana, that which seems “foreign” to us reveals itself as “familiar”. Smiling, she recounts an episode involving a young Iraqi Muslim.
“We Franciscan Sisters of Oberzell wear a medal around our neck. One side shows Saint Francis and the other Our Lady. A young Iraqi asked me if that was Mary. Surprised, I answered yes. Then he told me that he too would like a medal like that. I smiled a little, then I told him, ‘No, it isn’t possible because to get one, you have to join the community, and you’re a man’. We laughed about it – but from there arose a very profound conversation in which he told me how important Mary is to him but also in Islam. It was a moving and very unique conversation”.
The “Dublin-system” in Europe establishes that refugees must request asylum from the first safe country they reach. This means that all people – and they are the majority – who arrive in Italy, Greece and Spain (the countries overlooking the Mediterranean) cannot continue the journey into more northern countries where they would like to request asylum. This leads to situations of inhumane lagers in the first country of asylum.
Precisely because of this system, Sr Juliana ended up in news headlines. Her mistake was having granted asylum in the church to people who had to leave the country, having first reached Italy as a safe country and then continued on to Germany.
Sr Juliana recalls: “Some years ago, the community had decided to grant the right to asylum in the church on principle”. The community had already done so on several occasions. “To have the right to asylum in the church, one must first submit an application which is carefully examined, and the right to asylum is granted only in cases of real need. In the case of the judicial process discussed, there were two Nigerian women who had become victims of forced prostitution after having already been subjected to sexual abuse in their childhood”.
Deportation to Italy, explains Sr Juliana, using another woman as an example, would have surely meant returning to prostitution. “That woman was severely traumatized and in need of a place to reset for a moment, far from the fear of returning to prostitution and violence”. In 2021 Sr Juliana was condemned, and in 2022, absolved on appeal.
It’s in the mission of the Order that Juliana finds the strength to move forward each day and continue to care about the fate of traumatized people with unbelievable stories. “The important thing in our spirituality is the fact that God became man, he made himself small. And because God shows himself as vulnerable and powerless, we too allow ourselves to be touched by the reality of the life of human beings”, explains the Franciscan. “And this is the engine that drives me. This touches me, this engages me”.
It’s the exchange within the team at the welcoming centre for asylum seekers, as well as life in the convent, that allow Sr Juliana to process what she hears and experiences. “I feel supported by my sisters, who always carry my worries and those of others with them in prayer”. (Sabine Meraner)