Lost in translation: helping refugees find a voice
It’s not a new adage that it takes a community to raise a child, but sometimes the simple assumptions we take for granted need to be brought back into the spotlight to reinforce their relevance.
If we’re to expect to be able to raise well-adjusted children who each have a sense of security and belonging, we need to be progressive in our definition of community – including in our consideration of where our individual responsibility to community starts and ends.
While Australia provides a safe-haven for many thousands of refugees seeking asylum every year, their relief can be short-lived if they fail to adjust to a life so completely different to any they have ever known.
An individual who doesn’t speak the language, has never had access to a formal education and is therefore illiterate in his or her native language, starts a new life with major barriers to success that cannot be overcome without a swathe of support from their new community.
At the time of the 2001 Australian census, 22 percent of the population was foreign-born, indicating a vast mix of cultures coming together to form our national identity. While we may celebrate this cultural diversity, that each of us has different levels of education and support requirements should be something we take on as a societal challenge.
Whether born in Australia or newly arrived, we are each of us responsible for accepting the diversity in culture, values and lifestyles of our fellow citizens and for encouraging a collective sense of belonging.
It is not unusual for refugees and immigrants to feel socially isolated, but we as a nation have a responsibility to ensure this does not become a defining factor in their new lives. We must all play a part in building the capacity of community to give back to its members.
The non-profit sector is integral to the notion of community in bringing disparate groups and services together to create a meaningful support network.
Here at The Smith Family we collaborate with a raft of agencies working in migrant communities, and with the community at large, to encourage a sense of social inclusion among refugees.
Our home tutoring service, Each One Teach One (awarded the United Nations Merit Certificate in the Year of Literacy, 1990) was initiated as a pilot project in 1971 in Sydney as result of concern expressed by the community services workers at the isolation and depression of many migrant women. They were found to be confined to their homes with small children, with no knowledge of English and often with their close relatives half a world away.
It is little wonder these families, and subsequent refugee families, feel excluded as part of the community, when their most basic abilities to communicate and interact have been removed.
Today Each One Teach One continues to eliminate the social isolation experienced by non-English speaking clients by providing volunteers (up to 350 in NSW) trained to teach survival English, one-on-one, in clients’ homes.
Consider the number of everyday tasks that would be impossible to undertake with no knowledge of the English language, let alone basic literacy skills. Simple tasks such as filling out health forms, banking, dealing with children’s educational institutions, or even just doing the grocery shopping, would be extremely difficult.
In Melbourne we are taking a dual-generational approach to many of the parent groups and playgroups we’re facilitating, providing adult learning opportunities for parents while their children participate in quality early childhood care and education. More than that though, we are working closely with other community organisations to boost their capacity to work with these groups, so that a far-reaching network of support is available to all new arrivals.
A small example is the Atherton Gardens Homework Club, which operates in a housing estate home to families originally from Vietnam, Ethiopia and the Sudan. Together with the Vietnamese Mothers Association, Australian Catholic University, Jesuit Social Services and Brotherhood of St Laurence, we are providing assistance to up to 85 students with their homework and learning on Wednesday afternoons after school.
The Homework Club is one of a number of educational and sport programs provided by community agencies for children on the estate. One of those children is Abdi*, a Year 5 student born in a refugee camp in the Sudan. His parents, from Eritrea and Somalia, moved their three children to Melbourne in 2005 after 10 years in a refugee camp.
Not surprisingly Abdi had a poor grasp on reading and was last year paired with a student mentor, Paul*, who helps him develop his reading skills through The Smith Family’s telephone-based literacy program student2student. His reading improvement has been nothing short of incredible and he now aims to become a vet or lawyer. With the help of more ‘Paul’s’, Abdi and others in similar situations will receive every chance to reach their potential.
All Australians have a responsibility to acknowledge the needs of these groups and assist their interactions with the community, so that we may create a more caring and cohesive society. More importantly however, we are stirring that melting pot of Australian culture and basking in the two-way flow of cultural understanding and compassion.
*Names have been changed.