Refugees find safety and support in NSW public schools

NSW is home to about 40 per cent of the nation’s refugees and our schools are doing their bit to welcome families into the community. Jim Griffiths reports.

Two students with their teacher standing in front of a garden. Two students with their teacher standing in front of a garden.
Image: Birrong Girls High students Sania and Seema with Raylene Park, EAL/D Education Leader, at the school.

For former Afghan refugees Sania and Seema, learning how to study in a foreign language was just one of many hurdles they faced when settling into Birrong Girls High School in western Sydney.

“It was challenging coming here because I didn't know English, so I had to listen to the teacher and then translate every word they said in my head,” Seema said.

“And then I had to understand the lessons in my own language.”

When Sania and Seema started at the school in Year 7, bilingual school learning support officers attended classes to help them with lessons.

The students also participated in the school’s homework club and received assistance with assessment tasks and other academic activities.

The support enabled the girls, now in Year 11, to better understand Australian culture and settle into their school and local community.

An important early lesson for both Sania and Seema was that police in Australia need not be feared.

While a police uniform is a common and welcome sight for many Australians, it can have the opposite effect on refugees who have had negative experiences in other countries.

“(When we started at Birrong Girls High) all the Afghans and other refugees and international students were taken to lunch to meet the police,” Sania.

“They were so nice, and I didn't expect the police to be nice. It was good meeting them, because I’d always thought the police were there to get you in trouble, but actually they’re there to support you.”

NSW is home to about 40 per cent of Australia’s refugees, and students from refugee backgrounds can face specific challenges at school.

Marie Morell, an English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) Education Leader from the Albury network of schools, said refugee trauma can be sustained and ongoing.

“This type of trauma has a big impact on education, affecting a student’s memory and engagement. It’s both physical and emotional,” she said.

Ms Morell said in the initial months after arriving in Australia, students from refugee backgrounds felt safe and positive, but then the reality of being in a new country sets in and they can start to experience negative emotions.

There may be missing family members they are worried about overseas, or the impact of a new culture and language can cause stress and confusion.

While many challenges can be overcome with strong social, family and school support, some students find it difficult to learn positive classroom behaviour.

This can result in disengagement and acting out, which can challenge even the most experienced teacher. It is known as the ‘migration U curve’.

“A student literally starts to go down this slide and then hits rock bottom. That can take months and then with therapy and support, they start to climb back up out of that,” Ms Morell said.

In Albury, there are students with refugee backgrounds from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal and Syria across the city’s three high schools and eight primary schools, while in Sydney, refugees often settle in established migrant areas.

Raylene Park, an EAL/D Education Leader in south and western Sydney schools, has seen the migration U curve scenario play out often.

“We’ve got a high number of Afghan refugee students coming into our schools and often they feel safe, but then they become frustrated,” she said.

“They have this language barrier where they want to express themselves freely or safely to other people. They often seem lost. They can just zone out and stop engaging in class.”

Settling into school

NSW public schools provide programs and classroom support to help students from refugee backgrounds settle into school so they can achieve the best educational outcomes possible.

Through the school-based Trauma Support Services for Students from Refugee Backgrounds program, specialist teams work with students and their families to build a positive educational environment.

The program has a focus on addressing the impact of past trauma and resettlement stressors and is offered across a network of schools.

Supports include specialist counselling, where students can talk to a counsellor who is trained in refugee experiences. The counselling is conducted in a safe environment and students can express their emotions and any difficulties they are having, usually with a qualified interpreter present.

The program includes regular meetings where schools can identify the issues and needs around refugee education and enrolments, including teacher professional learning support for schools in managing complex trauma.

The culturally appropriate and evidence-based support aims to make the ‘migration U curve’ both narrower and shallower for students.

“We could see that the kids were more engaged, that they were able to cope a bit better with their studies, as well as the pressures of being teenagers with responsibilities in the home for translations and navigating life in a new culture,” Ms Morell said.

Importantly, trauma support also improves students’ English language learning so they can access the wider curriculum, achieve equitable learning outcomes, and successfully transition out of school and into vocational training, tertiary education or relevant employment opportunities.

Younger students may be directed to activities like art therapy or attending therapeutic group sessions.

The NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) has just been contracted to work in collaboration with the Refugee Student Counselling Support and Multicultural Education teams for another five years.

Help in the community

STARTTS has helped Afghan mothers with students at Birrong Girls High support their children through the education journey.

“We found the mums didn’t know what was going on within their schools or how they could help their children,” Ms Park said.

“Through STARTTS, we did a 10-week Families in Cultural Transition course where they learned about education in NSW and other things about Australia in general.

“It's been really successful because we now have people coming in asking questions and increased attendance at parent-teacher nights, which shows they want to know about their girls’ education.”

Seema agreed: “my mum now has a better understanding of my school, and she gets to socialise with other Afghan mums so she’s not so lonely”.

The school also saw improvements in learning outcomes, engagement in lessons, and a more positive relationship with the community.

For Seema and Sania, six years after arriving, they now describe themselves as both Afghan and Australian.

“We’ve both just got our citizenship, so now we feel more Aussie, you know?” Sania said.

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