National ambassador epitomises the power of education

In World Refugee Week we celebrate the staff and students who have made new lives in our public schools.

A woman looking straight at the camera
Image: Transforming young lives: Granville South Creative and Performing Arts High School refugee coordinator Abang Othow.

Sydney teacher Abang Othow has a journey she is sharing with Australia after being named one of the Refugee Council of Australia Refugee Week 2022 national ambassadors.

Ms Othow, who fled the civil war in South Sudan as a child, said it was a privilege to be selected.

“I was quite surprised and quite humbled by this opportunity and the trust instilled in me,” she said.

“One of the most important things I see in my role as an advocate and mentor is to ensure the voices of the people who are marginalised are not lost.”

She is ensuring that doesn’t happen in her current role as refugee coordinator at Granville South Creative and Performing Arts High School.

“One of the things I’ve come to accept is that when I was young I did go through some very difficult times,” Ms Othow said.

“When you go through the brutality of war, homelessness and abandonment it can be quite overwhelming but I realise now that every part of my journey has brought me to who I am today.”

As a support person for refugee students, her lived experience meant she had a clear understanding of what they were going through.

“Sometimes they may not be able to express how they are feeling, but they know I care about them, who they are and their visions for their future,” she said.

“My message to them is they can transform their lives through education and be powerful initiators of change, and not just victims.”

It is a message Ms Othow has also lived after arriving in Australia age 18, with just five years of education behind her.

Soon after immigrating she was talent-spotted by a modelling agency.

“As a model, I had the opportunity to work internationally, travel the world and support myself. This made me feel empowered,” Ms Othow writes in her ambassador’s statement.

However, throughout her modelling career, she was also searching for her family, finally reuniting in Australia with 10 family members, including her mother, who she had not seen since the age of five.

At this point, Ms Othow decided to launch on a career change

“While being a fashion model introduced me to a new world, I was more interested in becoming a role model that shapes children’s minds in the same way I was shaped as a child,” she writes.

“Teaching became a newfound passion.”

After completing numerous bridging and preparation courses she finally completed her Masters of Teaching at the University of Western Sydney and has been teaching high school students for the past decade.

One of many stories

Ms Othow is one of the many refugees working in the Department of Education alongside the almost 12,000 students from refugee backgrounds enrolled in NSW public schools.

NSW Department of Education’s Multicultural Education Leader Nell Lynes said the students came from at least 90 different countries and spoke more than 100 different languages with many speaking more than three languages.

She said these students had a wide range of experiences and exhibit incredible resilience and determination to adapt to their new country and succeed.

Every year during Refugee Week schools across NSW celebrate this resilience and determination through a range of activities including whole-school events, morning teas and small assemblies recognising refugee background students’ skills, abilities, and contributions.

There are also tree-planting events in honour of people from refugee backgrounds who have made an impact in their local communities, parent afternoon teas, and guest speakers.

In stage-based lessons students learn about how refugees contribute to society both socially and economically. Students sing, dance, write poetry and speak about their countries, their families, and their own unique experiences.

This year, the theme for Refugee Week is Healing which invites all Australians to:

  • Pause and reflect on our behaviour towards one another,
  • Draw on shared hardship experienced through the pandemic to heal wounds, learn from each other, and emerge a more fulfilled and connected society,
  • Appreciate, honour and celebrate our intrinsic interconnectedness as individuals and human beings.

Send pictures and stories of how you are celebrating Refugee Week this year to multicultural.programs@det.nsw.edu.au

Resources to support schools

Multicultural Education provides resources for schools, including opportunities for professional learning, to meet the additional learning and wellbeing needs of refugee background students.

Roads to Refuge website. Developed by the NSW Department of Education in consultation with the Centre for Refugee Research (University of NSW), the site can be ways to support curriculum priorities and syllabus outcomes. The site content explores such themes 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.

Refugee Week website has resources and suggestions on how schools can get involved in Refugee Week activities.

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