Refugee Week – Jane O’Dwyer

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Refugee Week is taking place in June. Jane O’Dwyer, Migrant Settlement Project Worker for Manning Valley Neighbourhood Services, is holding a two-day refugee event from June 26 – 27. The event will see 24 African refugees aged between 16 to 25 travel from Newcastle to spend time with school kids from the Manning-Great Lakes. The event is in its second year and is organised in conjunction with Northern Settlement Services and Manning Valley Neighbourhood services. 

By running the two-day event, you are hoping to raise awareness of issues faced by refugees pre-arrival and post-arrival in Australia. How are you hoping to achieve this?

Students from Taree High School and Great Lakes College will engage with the refugees in a number of activities … As regional areas, Taree and the Great Lakes both lack the cultural diversity that you would experience in larger areas such as Newcastle or Sydney. Because of this, usually students don’t have the opportunity to see, talk with and get to know refugees. Having the refugees come to the area and engage in activities with the students will provide a face to people we really only see in media coverage.

Students will gain personal and first hand experience with our visiting refugees with small informal discussion groups where refugees will share their stories and chat with students.  Students will then be able to enjoy the captivating performances of the girls Burundi Choir and boys Dance Group, which is a great example of the culture which comes to Australia with these people. Students and refugees will also play some basketball and soccer games over the two days.

Issues affecting refugees will be discussed between small groups of high school student and the refugees. Could you tell us about how the process works?

Students will be broken into 12 groups of 8 – 10 students with two efugees. Each group will have the opportunity to talk with the refugees in their group in an intimate and personal way. The refugees will share their individual experiences and stories about life pre and post arrival in Australia, with students being able to ask questions, and chat in a friendly and informal way. The groups will rotate about every 15 minutes for about 1 hour, giving students the chance to talk with a number of refugees from a range of countries with varying ages and experiences.

In the lead up to the event, teachers will give students background information on refugee and asylum seeker issues to maximise the group discussions and give the students time to think about what they might like to ask.

With issues around refugees and asylum seekers sparking so much controversy in the media and in politics, it is hard to get an accurate picture. Hopefully this will help students to make up their own minds with accurate information and first hand discussion.

Which countries in Africa are the 24 refugees from, and what is their current status being in Australia?

The countries the refugees originally come from include Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Sudan and Mauritius. All people who have granted refugee visas (as our visitors have) are permanent arrivals. They receive nothing more in the way of Government income than the normal benefits and are expected to find work or be completing an approved training course or study. Many will initially study English language through the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), which is provided by the Government, as learning English is critical to settling successfully, becoming a part of the community and gaining employment.

How does the event fit into the high school curriculum?

The event fits into the high school curriculum primarily under the Human Society and Its Environment (HSIE) Course, which includes geography and legal studies subjects. Junior geography (Years 7-10) looks at what Australia does to help refugees, while Legal Studies (Years 11-12) looks more intensely into human rights and issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers.

The event is particularly relevant to these students, as they will have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss issues and ideas directly with the people who have or are still living with what the high school students are studying in a classroom and see on the TV and in ewspapers.The issues are difficult for most people to understand, as they are so far removed from our lives. It is even more difficult for high school students, as they lack the life experience and knowledge that comes with age.  Undoubtedly, this opportunity will add greatly to both their studies and life experience as individuals.

The Education Department also has a Multicultural Policy, which encourages respect for people from different cultural backgrounds.  Both schools are excited by the opportunity for the students to learn about and appreciate the experiences of people from other cultures.

Did some of the students also have misconceptions through lack of knowledge or education? 

I think these misconceptions are due to not only a lack of knowledge and education, but also lack of exposure or contact with refugees.  Most students, and indeed the broader community, have no contact with refugees and limited contact with migrants. The students and the broader community are influenced by the media, with regular reporting of the ‘boat people’ and images of Africa in drought.   Parental attitudes also play a role in shaping student beliefs.

Tell us about what’s involved in your role as a Migrant Settlement Project Worker?

My position is funded by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship under the auspices of Manning Valley Neighbourhood Services and is designed to provide information, referrals, casework and advocacy for newly arrived migrants and humanitarian entrants settling in the Greater Taree, Great Lakes, Gloucester, Hastings and Kempsey local government areas.

The role is very broad, as helping someone to settle into their community is very individual.   The aim is to assist people to be self-reliant, independent, and to participate in the community socially and economically. This can range from helping people find English classes, showing them how to catch the bus, to supporting people at the Police Station. I also spend a lot of time educating clients and other organisations about how to access and use interpreters. Another part of my job is supporting the Hastings and Taree Multicultural Groups, which is always a lot of fun.

There is also a community development aspect, raising awareness of multiculturalism in the community through organising events such as this one. I also work with other organisations to hold events including Harmony Day, Multicultural Health Week and Multicultural Carers Week Event.

From your work experience, what are some of the cultural barriers multicultural residents of the Manning-Great Lakes encounter? 

I find the biggest cultural barrier for multicultural residents is language. If someone has low level English skills or isn’t confident with their English, they tend to stay home a lot and become isolated. Sometimes when they are out in the community, we tend to talk quite quickly and use a lot of slang, making it difficult for them to understand what we are saying. Often just slowing down can be very helpful.

There are also the added challenges of learning to drive in another country, understanding new systems of law and culture, and learning how to access services in the community. Generally most people are accepting of our multicultural residents but there is always room for further understanding.

Thank you Jane.

Interview By Karen Farrell.

This story was published in issue 64 of Manning-Great Lakes Focus

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