Concord West creates a home for those from far away

Building a yurt in a school hall for a play about refugee children provided unique learning opportunities. Linda Doherty reports

A group of children sit watching a man perform in front of a yurt A group of children sit watching a man perform in front of a yurt
Image: Home within a hall: Students at Concord West Public School listen to Mongolian throat singer Bukhchuluun (Bukhu) Ganburged perform in front of the yurt built at their school.

The audience this week for ‘We Come From Far, Far Away’ will sit inside a huge Mongolian yurt at the Sydney Opera House, perhaps oblivious of the international collaboration behind its construction.

The collaboration involves a Norwegian theatre director, his Czech artist wife, a principal of Egyptian background, an English language teacher of Korean and Japanese heritage, and the culturally and linguistically diverse students at Concord West Public School in Sydney.

The play – a true story about two Syrian refugee boys – has its Australian premiere this week at the Opera House and will then travel to the DreamBIG Children’s Festival in Adelaide.

But with changes to cargo regulations, the Norwegian/Czech/British theatre company NIE (New International Encounter) couldn’t transport all the yurt components to Australia – and they needed a space to build the 8x8-metre yurt to accommodate 80 audience members.

Enter Kay Yasugi, Concord West Public School English language teacher and a puppeteer, who was contacted by NIE artistic directors Kjell and Iva Moberg looking for suggestions.

According to Ms Yasugi, principal Monica Marchiello’s “eyes lit up” when she heard of the request and authorised the construction of the yurt (known as ‘Ger’ in Mongolian) in the school hall.

The synergy for Ms Marchiello was the unique learning opportunities for her 359 students, of whom 86 per cent are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and 50 students are from Mongolia. Yurts have been in Mongolian culture for thousands of years.

“Our school has a growing Mongolian community with Mongolian students making up 14 per cent of enrolments. This was a perfect opportunity to have a culturally enriching experience that would bring our school community together,” Ms Marchiello said.

Ms Yasugi said the English as an Additional Language/Dialect (EAL/D) program she teaches involved hands-on learning experiences with lots of talking and listening to develop the students’ language acquisition.

“There are many ways to learn to read, speak and write in English, but who would have thought a yurt would become the inspiration,” she said.

As Kjell and Iva Moberg worked on the project last week, the entire school studied yurts – and the concept of home – and made their own models from paper and LEGO.

The school made sure the Mobergs’ 11-year-old daughter, Marie, had a school uniform and could join in student activities.

During the week of the artist-in-residence program, trucks delivered 300 metres of timber and 300 kilograms of lights, carpets and cushions as the Mobergs almost single-handedly put the yurt together.

“That is when the most beautiful thing happened,” Ms Yasugi said.

Two Mongolian men with minimal English turned up to help – Buyanba, the grandfather of a student, and his friend, Sambuu – with Year 6 Mongolian students translating for them.

Bayside Community Church member Rob Kirk also pitched in, with his experience teaching woodwork and timber technologies in high schools. The church meets at Concord West Public School on Sundays.

Last Friday the students and school community celebrated the yurt’s construction with a Mongolian Day, wearing the colours of the country’s flag – red, blue and yellow – with entertainment from renowned Mongolian throat singer and horse fiddle musician, Bukhchuluun (Bukhu) Ganburged.

The school assembly started with an Acknowledgement of Country to the Wangal people translated into Mongolian. Around 38 Mongolian students from Concord High School also attended and two of the teenagers sang a traditional lullaby while Bukhu played his horse fiddle.

“This week-long artist in residency has culminated in the most beautiful displays of community and connection, as well as pride and celebration of people’s cultural heritage,” Ms Yasugi said.

“We will always remember the yurt that came from far, far away.”

The Australian premiere season of We Come From Far, Far Away runs at the Sydney Opera House until May 21.

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