Refugee Week: celebrating diversity and resilience in schools

As part of Refugee Week 2024, Jim Griffiths visits a Sydney school that is embracing its refugee students and their families.

Three students and a teacher. Three students and a teacher.
Image: Miller Technology High students Abdullah, a school prefect originally from Iraq, Sala, a prefect also from Iraq, and Rahma, an Intensive English Centre student from Burundi, with Deputy Principal Dragana Stojanovic, who was originally from Yugoslavia.

For a young person forced to flee their homeland, school often becomes a central focus as they find freedom and opportunity.

NSW public schools have almost 12,000 students from refugee backgrounds, with 1800 new students enrolling each year.

NSW Department of Education Secretary Murat Dizdar said students from refugee backgrounds could learn, grow and find a place to belong in the NSW public education system.

“Their stories of perseverance and hope enrich our schools, and help foster empathy, inclusivity and mutual respect among all students,” he said.

“Our schools are at the heart of it all, as they are where young people begin to build their new lives, integrate into our communities, and share their unique perspectives and talents.”

Leaves of hope

At Miller Technology High School in south-west Sydney, students born in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan celebrate Refugee Week with an annual tree-planting ceremony, which is also attended by local primary school students.

Representing growth and life, the trees are a living link to the many students from refugee backgrounds who have attended the school.

Deputy Principal and former refugee Dragana Stojanovic said students would write messages of hope on leaves which are planted with each new tree.

“We have a strong focus on engagement and connected learning at our school,” Ms Stojanovic said.

“Our refugee support team is an integral part of the culture here and is supported across the school.”

Family engagement is also a critical component.

“We have built a sense of community among refugee parents and students by including activities that shape a sense of identity and culture, Ms Stojanovic said.

People holding leaves with writing on them. People holding leaves with writing on them.
Image: Students write messages of hope on leaves which are planted with each new tree.

Experience and empathy

Many NSW public school staff from refugee backgrounds have similar experiences to the students.

Former refugee and now relieving head of science at Riverside Girls High School, Andjelka Nikic, arrived in Australia from the former Yugoslavia in 1993 with no English.

She enrolled in language classes at an Adult Migrant Education Service and then later at Penshurst Girls High School aged 19.

“I really needed to understand English better and how schools worked in Australia,” Ms Nikic said.

“We had to create a community around us when we came, and for me that was school.

“Penshurst Girls gave me a new community and made me feel welcome and wanted. I’m still friends with some of the girls I went to school with.”

Her experiences gave Ms Nikic an increased sense of empathy and led her to take on other non-teaching roles at school such as learning support coordinator, year advisor, international student coordinator and head of wellbeing.

Ms Nikic draws on her own experiences to provide support to students who need it, ensuring they stay at school a little longer to help them find their way.

She also shares a positive attitude.

“Australia is a country that took us in and gave us a new life,” she said.

Schools at the heart

The number of students from refugee backgrounds enrolling in NSW schools reflects Australia’s humanitarian program intake, with the numbers increasing due to ongoing conflicts in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

NSW resettles approximately 40 per cent of Australia’s refugees.

Students from refugee backgrounds are offered support in schools from intensive English language lessons, through to specialist trauma support and counselling.

The Trauma Support Services for Students from Refugee Backgrounds program also extends to supporting students’ families to help build positive educational environments.

Refugee Week, coordinated by the Refugee Council of Australia, is a chance for schools to highlight the positive social, cultural and economic contributions refugees make to their communities.

In 2024, the theme of Refugee Week is ‘Finding Freedom: Family’, which highlights the many bonds created through the refugee journey.

Refugee Week runs from Sunday 16 June to Saturday 22 June, and includes World Refugee Day on 20 June. 

Miller Technology High’s tree planting ceremony will take place at 11am on Tuesday 18 June.

Refugee students at Miller Technology High speak about their experiences.
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