Staff speak: Supporting refugees at Sydney Catholic Schools

For the more than 900 students across Sydney Catholic Schools who are from refugee families learning is a priority, but ensuring everything is in place so they can achieve their best can be a complex task.

In honour of refugee week, we spoke to three of our system experts about how they help new arrivals in their role, and about why supporting the vulnerable is such an important element of a Catholic education.

Maria Nagapin

Coordinator, Catholic Intensive English Centre, Patrician Brothers College Fairfield

“They are the most flexible students I know and they work so hard.”

Most newly arrived refugee students first attend school knowing limited English, and lacking some of the formal skills required to succeed in an Australian classroom.

Some have missed large chunks of their education due to time spent fleeing violence, or periods spent housed in refugee camps with minimal schooling available.

Patrician Brothers students celebrate the CIEC’s first anniversary last year

Sydney Catholic Schools’ three Catholic Intensive English Centres, located at Patrician Brothers College Fairfield, Mary Mackillop College Wakeley and Holy Spirit College Lakemba, help newly arrived students build their English skills and knowledge of Australian culture in a safe environment, with the goal of helping them integrate with the school’s mainstream students and classes.

“Refugee students want to learn, they want to succeed,” Ms Nagapin said. “Removing roadblocks and trying to understand them is the most important thing we can do for their wellbeing.

“Telling a student to speak English when they don’t have the words just pushes them away from learning and wanting to be part of the community because it’s a reminder they don’t fit in.

“Supporting them and extending their knowledge, understanding and skill sets enables them to become independent learners, which is the most valuable skill we as educators can give them.”

Students are taught critical reading, thinking and study skills, and how to express their ideas within a classroom environment that takes into account their experiences. They’re also included in the life of college through whole-school activities such as assemblies, sports carnivals, camps and reflection days.

Mainstream teachers attend the centre to teach Physical Education (PE) and Technological and Applied Studies (TAS), and students decide alongside staff when they feel ready to take on a conventional school timetable.

Once they leave the centre, students are well-supported by CIEC staff and the college’s EALD team, and many act as role models for more recent arrivals.

“What I wish people in the broader community knew about educating refugees is that they are not empty vessels. They bring strength, they bring pain and they also bring with them the love and need to be part of the community too.”

Paula Frivola

Refugee Liaison Officer, Sydney Catholic Schools

“Resettlement issues really do impact a child’s learning.”

The core struggles faced by many refugee students are the same as all children and teenagers. They worry about fitting in socially and that their families are cared for and thriving.

Ms Frivola said her role was created to address this anxiety.

“Even though they’ve been through lots of trauma, if students are set up at school in a nurturing environment, research does show they’re highly likely to completely recover,” she said.

“About four years ago the government announced that they were going to allow an additional 12,000 humanitarian visas and our schools saw a huge increase of enrolments. SCS needed a position to support these families because resettlement issues really do have an impact on a child’s learning.”

Paula Frivola (left) with a refugee family

Such support can take many forms. Most families have left their countries of origin with little money and few possessions, but many still bear the scars of their experience. It’s not uncommon for parents and children to have physical disabilities or mental health issues while lacking access to healthcare. Inability to find work, or to access government assistance, only compounds the problem.

Ms Frivola’s position exists to help families with children at Sydney Catholic schools to access government services, understand their rights and responsibilities in Australia, and find community and social inclusion by linking them with other refugee families in their community.

Consultation with parents and school-based staff is extensive, to ensure the programs on offer are meeting a genuine need and helping families move forward with their new lives. One school may ask for and receive help with parenting programs, while another may want job training.

“At Patrician Brothers, we organised a TAFE floristry course for parents in response to a training needs survey we did last year. Apart from imparting skills and increasing confidence, it really helped with stress.

“A teacher was approached by two brothers who said ‘we’re so happy, because our mum is so happy’. That does impact on their overall wellbeing and mental health.”

Liz Fenech

Manager, Catholic Education Foundation

“Security is one of the best things we can give them.”

One difficult element of Ms Frivola’s position is trying to help struggling families afford the educational resources their children need to thrive. School fees alone, before uniforms, electronics, assessments around any difficulties and tutoring for tricky subjects can run to thousands of dollars.

Liz Fenech addresses the crowd at the CEF’s refugee week event

But the Catholic Education Foundation, which offers bursaries to financially disadvantaged, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and refugee students, can often provide support and assistance thanks to the donations of staff, external supporters and corporate partners.

“The work that the Foundation does has such an impact, but we do it from the sidelines,” Mrs Fenech said. “By taking away that financial burden, it allows the student to be able to concentrate on their studies and to excel.

“Our corporate partners believe in helping us, and that may be through monetary donations. But in a lot of instances, we’ll pick up the phone and say ‘we have a newly arrived family, are you able to provide them with a uniform, or textbooks?’ and our partners are really quick to jump on board and help us meet that need.”

Hearing the stories of current CIEC students Mrs Fenech said, made it so clear to her that educators have a responsibility to ensure every Catholic child can access a Catholic education.

“There’s that perception that all refugees are boat people and they’ve come here illegally,” Mrs Fenech said. “Some of them may have, but at the end of the day they’ve fled for a reason and they’ve sought asylum for the chance of a better life.

“We’re able to contribute to that – and that’s one of the advantages of Catholic education. We are very community focused, very accepting, and very strong on pastoral care.

“We’ve welcomed them into our community because it’s the right thing to do. But what they offer to us as well is amazing insight. The adversity that they’ve gone through to get here – they teach our local students as well. I do go out to the CIEC when I can, it renews me. I go ‘this is why I do what I do and why I love it’.”

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