When Sam’s school started its new programme, he volunteered to teach English to asylum seekers in Melbourne. Some of the young people he taught had endured difficult journeys to Australia. Then they had periods in offshore detention camps, some for as long as 6-7 years. It’s not easy teaching traumatised young people who hardly speak English; many teachers burn out in such jobs. Was Sam changing lives? He is a senior philosophy student in Brisbane.
Sam Grace, Brisbane
Whenever I looked at my students from the vantage point at the front of the class, I met a real cultural mix. Hazara Afghans and Pakistanis, Kurdish Iraqis, Iranians, a Sri Lankan Tamil boy and a couple of Papua New Guinean girls – all aged between 17-24.
I’m not sure how qualified I was to teach English as an Additional Language (EAL), but I volunteered for the new program at the school where I was then teaching. The aim was to provide a senior schooling certificate for some of the most marginalised young people in Melbourne – asylum seekers. Particularly those who had arrived in Australia as unaccompanied minors.
With no training in EAL, I was assigned to a class with some grasp of English – although that was quite variable from student to student. It was thrilling to have such an opportunity. I imagined I would be in the business of changing lives! I didn’t know how much it would change mine.
Introducing mindfulness: good for changing lives
I myself came across the various practices in the School of Philosophy aged 18. I felt that these young adults were primed for an introduction to mindfulness – just like I was. Every morning, after the ritual of making tea for each other in the corner of the classroom, we gathered in a circle. I spoke clearly and used diagrams on the whiteboard much of the time, checking for understanding.
They loved to know that, by using intentional mindful practice in this way, every day, an individual could repair some of the neural pathways pruned by an overloaded and wounded psychological state. Neuroplasticity was the word of the week! I feel this appealed most deeply to them because of the unspeakable traumas that they had endured. They also liked to know that, according to the science of neuroplasticity, with continual practice, they might keep their youthful looks for longer!
I thought I’d been chosen to take these classes to impart some knowledge, to be a beacon of inspiration and hope. What happened over 18 months was powerfully humbling, endlessly surprising and ultimately transformational – for ME. Some of the most disenfranchised groups of young people imaginable, those seeking asylum from war and upheaval, gave me a lesson.
18 year old Hazara boy, Aamir Ali, had a smile that never seemed to leave his face. After a morning of sharing funny stories with the class about Australian idioms and sayings (which they loved), Aamir approached me, smile and all. He put on his broadest Aussie accent and proclaimed ‘She’ll be right cobber!’
This is how it usually happened. A young person who had suffered significant trauma would pick the most random time to share a particularly harrowing story from their past. I can’t quite remember how we got there, but Aamir was soon standing before me explaining a life-changing event in his hometown of Quetta, Pakistan. He had drawn a map of intersecting roads on the whiteboard.
Aamir told me about a time when a suicide bomber blew up an underground snooker club next door to where he was taking night classes. He and six of his friends ran out to the crowded and chaotic intersection to try and find his motorcycle and watched three ambulances and a police car noisily rush past. While frantically calling his friends to make sure of their safety, he became anxious that something wasn’t quite right. Aamir instinctively crouched by the front wheel of his bike.
Second bomb- changing lives forever
A second explosion caused a shockwave through the area. One of the ambulances was also rigged with an explosive, causing far more carnage than the first bomb. Aamir said that the motorcycle shielded and saved his eyes from the blinding force of the explosion. More than 100 people died at the scene including Aamir’s friend Ali Zaheer. Aamir filled the white board with arrows and a scribbled birds-eye view of the commotion. I was a mess – blinking like mad to fight back the tears. Aamir explained that Ali Zaheer would usually sit on the back of his bike on the way home from night school.
Students like Aamir make me proud to be a part of the human race. He wouldn’t have known that he was one of the most inspiring people I’ve met. After finishing that year of this senior schooling he completed an Advanced Diploma at Melbourne Polytechnic then started a Mechanical Engineering Bachelors in 2019. (His high school qualifications from back home were not recognised.) My co-worker and mentor, Sally, worked tirelessly to ensure every single student in that class had a secure pathway to university, an apprenticeship or work.
Another student in the class called Hossein, a Kurdish Iranian, worked really hard to finish his senior schooling. His grasp of English was tenuous throughout the year, but he was a natural comedian and could make the whole class erupt with his good-natured humour. This was mostly done through physical gesturing and hilarious mispronunciations.
His twin brother Farhad, was more scholarly and found learning English quite easy. The boys were beyond lovely, and everybody adored them. Hossein passed his senior certificate and found himself with traineeship with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
My co-teacher Sally had somehow managed to convince the state government to take on four young asylum seekers each year. Hossein is now a fully-fledged Forest Fire-Fighter. My recent Facebook feed showed recent pictures of him in his fireman garb after a day battling the devastating 2020 fires in regional Victoria.
It was unmistakably Hossein, his grin emerging from his blackened face. Hossein, like many of the students in that class, felt they owed a debt to Australia. They took great pride in becoming a part of the local workforce, and usually found themselves in jobs that served the community. Mahmood from Iran worked as a pool-side lifeguard, Denis from Sri Lanka is studying nursing. Omid from Kabul has almost finished his Dental Hygiene course.
Hossein once showed me a photo of a shipwrecked fisherman’s boat (SIEV-221) with people bobbing around it in life jackets. He pointed out some of the people and explained that his family were all in the water, separated and desperate to survive – all five of them. This was a major news story in Australia – 48 people drowned, 42 asylum seekers survived.
To my amazement, another boy, Farshad, pointed to the photo. He exclaimed that one of the orange pixelated jackets was actually him. The twins Hossein and Farhad nodded, acknowledging my astonishment. Three boys from that infamous boat were in my class!
Changing lives: from asylum seeker to charity worker
Meanwhile, Aamir from Quetta, Pakistan is in third year mechanical engineering. He has also helped start a Food for Hope project for the asylum seeker students who don’t have an income, or lost their jobs because of the current pandemic. So Aamir helps coordinate deliveries of weekly ration/food to their doorstep. He is currently fundraising to continue this food delivery till the end of 2020. I will never forget Aamir’s beautiful handwriting. He once left me a handwritten note on my desk to commemorate Eid (pictured).
I still keep in contact with some of these students. It’s wonderful to hear about their progress – marriages, diplomas, babies, degrees, jobs. I’ve learned much about what it means to be patient. Really patient! Most of the class still have no permanent residency and are on SHEV (Safe Haven Enterprise Visa) which is a five year Temporary Visa.
I have seen what fruits come from perseverance – even as the Australian government tightened the restrictions on people seeking asylum. Aamir and Hossein seem to ignore the fact of their temporary visas, and just get on with their lives.
Teachers changing lives
Lastly I have learned about the goodness of all. These students had impossible circumstances, with the odds of survival stacked against them. Yet they still managed to bring great presence, generosity and laughter to the classroom. I will never forget these extraordinary young people, their lessons were powerful and their teacher was willing to learn.
Enjoyed reading this article? Read how Emina was a refugee from a war zone.