Sister Margaret Culhane, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, has always been closely involved in community life. As a teacher and principal, she worked in small country schools for nearly 25 years.
But when she was asked to establish a school system in the midst of a teeming refugee camp in Northern Africa, her commitment and skills were truly tested. Arriving in the Ikafe refugee camp in Uganda in 1993, Sister Margaret found children eager to learn, sitting on the ground with the dirt for a slate and drawing with their fingers.
‘They literally had nothing,’ she says. ‘There weren’t even any bits of wood around to sit on because they needed them for fuel.’
The challenge was daunting, but Sister Margaret established 44 schools for 17,000 refugee students in the first six months, conducting ‘in the field’ teacher training for the refugees (mainly men) so that they could do the teaching.
Over the course of four and a half years in Africa, Sister Margaret was shot at twice and held hostage for three days.
‘I sometimes look back and ask, “Was this a dream?”, says Sister Margaret. ‘I think it was because I really believed in what I was doing. I did not really see myself as a very courageous person, I was more concerned about the safety of my workers as they were the providers for their families.’
Sister Margaret has also volunteered her skills in disadvantaged communities in Asia. In the Philippines, she helped set up a preschool program in a poor area of Manila. In Nepal, she worked with refugees from Bhutan.
And for one month each year, Sister Margaret heads into the mountains of East Timor, distributing warm clothes and working on bores to provide clean water.
From her base in Perth, Sister Margaret now works in the wheatbelt of Western Australia, providing educational and pastoral support to parents. She’ll always make herself available for a ‘chat-a-cino’ in a local café, she says.
Sister Margaret was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2012 for service to the international community, particularly refugees from Asia and Africa, and for service to women and as an educator.