Refugees find safety and support in NSW schools

NSW Department of Education

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 School in western Sydney in Year 7.

“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. And then I had to understand the lessons in my own language,” said Seema, now in Year 11 and starting her HSC with Sania.

Fortunately, bilingual school learning support officers attended classes with the girls and helped them understand the lessons. A homework club and assistance understanding assessment tasks provided further help.

The support also enabled the girls to understand Australian culture and settle in more broadly, meeting others in both the Afghan and local communities. This included understanding that the police in Australia do not need to be feared.

While a police uniform is a common, welcoming sight for many Australians, it can have the opposite effect on refugees who may have had very negative experiences with uniformed people in other countries.

“All the Afghans and other refugees and international students were taken to lunch to meet the police,” explained Sania.

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

In NSW, which takes in approximately 40% of Australia’s refugees, students from refugee backgrounds can face specific challenges at school.

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

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

In the initial months after arriving in Australia most students from refugee backgrounds feel 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.

“You just literally start to go down this slide and then you hit rock bottom. That can take months and then with therapy and support you start to climb back up out of that,” explains Marie of what is known as the ‘migration U curve’.

Raylene Park, EAL/D Education Leader in south and western Sydney schools has seen this 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 and they have this language barrier where they want to express themselves freely or safely to other people,” she said.

“They often seem lost. They can just zone out and stop engaging in class.”

Support on hand at school

Fortunately, NSW public schools provide many programs and classroom support to help students from refugee backgrounds settle into school and aim to achieve the best educational outcomes possible.

Specialised refugee student support is also available to help students from refugee backgrounds through the school-based Trauma Support Services from Students from Refugee Backgrounds

This program provides targeted support to address the impact of past trauma and resettlement stressors. Importantly, the service is offered across a network of schools, enabling support across a community.

In Albury, for example, there are now students with refugee backgrounds from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal and Syria across all three high schools and eight primary schools; while in Sydney, refugees often settle in established migrant areas, such as Palestinian and Afghan refugees arriving in suburbs with high Lebanese populations.

The Trauma Support Services from Students from Refugee Backgrounds involves specialist teams working specifically with refugee students and their families to give them the additional support they need to build a positive educational environment.

In NSW public schools, this is offered by the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors , who have just been contracted for another three years.

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 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 where students can express their emotions and the difficulties they are having, often with a qualified interpreter present.

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

“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,” Marie 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.

The culturally appropriate and evidence-based support services aim to make the ‘migration U curve’ both narrower and shallower for students from refugee backgrounds and their families so they can start to feel better sooner.

Support for families

Beyond the classroom, STARTTS supports families as well, such as helping the Afghan mothers at Birrong Girls’ High School and the local primary schools.

“We found that those mums don’t know what’s going on within their schools and they don’t know how they can help their children,” Raylene 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,” she said.

Seema agrees: “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.”

Along with this increased community engagement, the school saw improvements in the girls’ learning outcomes, their engagement in lessons, and also a more positive relationship with the community.

And as 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.

/Public Release.