From displacement to freedom in the classroom

In Refugee Week, a Sydney teacher and former refugee describes how her educational journey inspired a passion for teaching. Billy Kos reports.

Head shot of a woman. Head shot of a woman.
Image: Noor Azizah and her family were finally able to embrace their Rohingya culture in Australia.

Noor Azizah was just a baby and unaware of the journey her family would face when they made the difficult decision to flee their homeland.

The Rohingya family of seven faced genocide in the Rakhine state of Myanmar as they embarked on a gruelling trek through dense jungle and found their way on foot to Malaysia.

The family lived in constant hunger and fear of detection for the first eight years of Noor’s life before they were granted asylum in Australia in 2003.

“That year marked a significant turning point for my family and me, as it brought a newfound sense of freedom and opportunity,” Ms Azizah said.

“Finally, we were given the chance to rebuild our lives and leave behind the shadows of uncertainty and fear.”

This year’s theme for Refugee Week, ‘Finding Freedom’, resonates deeply with Ms Azizah, who said the freedoms her family obtained after resettling in Australia meant they were finally able to embrace their culture without fear or restriction.

“My own journey as a refugee serves as a reminder of the resilience and strength exhibited by individuals and families forced to flee their homelands, as well as the importance of providing them with the opportunity to find freedom and rebuild their lives,” Ms Azizah said.

“I carry this gratitude in my heart and strive to use my experiences to advocate for the rights and wellbeing of refugees, ensuring that they too have the chance to find the freedom they deserve.”

There are 11,000 students in NSW public schools from refugee backgrounds – from more than 100 countries. Ms Azizah is one of many Department of Education employees from a refugee background.

A family standing in front of the Sydney Opera House. A family standing in front of the Sydney Opera House.
Image: Noor Azizah, front right, and three of her siblings outside Sydney’s iconic Opera House just three days after arriving in Australia.

First day in the classroom

Noor Azizah had only been in Australia for 15 days when she first walked into Hampden Park Public School as a Year 3 student. It was the start of her education journey, a lifeline that gave her hope, opportunity and a sense of purpose.

“Walking into a classroom filled with faces that were unfamiliar and a language that was foreign, I felt like an outsider trying to find my place,” she said.

“The language barrier and cultural differences were a source of confusion at times, and I grappled with a sense of identity, torn between embracing my own cultural heritage and fitting into the new environment I found myself in.

“But despite the challenges, education became my refuge, a sanctuary where I could escape the hardships and envision a brighter future.

“The first time I understood a concept, the first essay I wrote in fluent English, the first presentation that I confidently delivered—it was these milestones that filled me with a sense of accomplishment and hope.”

A teacher and student. A teacher and student.
Image: After working as a primary school teacher for five years, Ms Azizah is now teaching at one of the state’s Intensive English Centres.

Compassion and understanding

After working as a primary school teacher for five years, Ms Azizah is now teaching at one of the state’s Intensive English Centres (IEC) – a school like the one her older siblings attended after arriving in Australia.

The IECs provide intensive English language tuition, orientation, settlement and wellbeing programs to newly arrived, high school-aged students whose first language is not English.

Ms Azizah said it was the compassion, understanding and guidance of her teachers that showed her the transformative power of learning and influenced her decision to become a teacher.

“Education had a profound impact on my own life by giving me the tools to overcome adversity, expand my horizons, and build a brighter future for myself,” she said.

“Being both a refugee student and a teacher in a NSW public school highlighted the transformative power of compassion and understanding in education.

“That’s why I am passionate about providing the same opportunities for my students and why I am committed to creating a safe and nurturing space where they feel heard, understood, and empowered to reach their full potential.”

A woman sitting at a desk overlooking a lecture theatre. A woman sitting at a desk overlooking a lecture theatre.
Image: Ms Azizah is passionate about providing the same opportunities she had to her students.

Resources for schools

  • Refugee Week, from June 18 to June 24, is an opportunity to celebrate the resilience and determination of refugee students and staff.
  • Multicultural Education provides resources for schools, including opportunities for professional learning, to meet the additional learning and wellbeing needs of students from refugee backgrounds.
  • Roads to Refuge website. Developed by the NSW Department of Education in consultation with the Centre for Refugee Research (University of NSW), the site explores themes such as experiencing and overcoming adversity, adapting to a new culture, speaking up for social justice, and finding an identity and a voice through authentic human experiences that students will find engaging.
  • The Refugee Student Counselling Support Team offers psychological expertise to schools to support refugee students and their families.
  • News
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