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Australian school gives hope to traumatized refugee students

A high school in Sydney’s southwestern suburbs is becoming known as an enclave for refugee students who have escaped the ravages of war in their homelands.

More than four-fifths of the students of Fairfield High School were refugees, many of whom are still suffering severe trauma related to their experiences in countries such as Iraq and Syria, which were controlled by the Islamic State.

Every teacher should understand, «trauma impacts on learning and trauma impacts on behavior,» explained Sherin Nair, a refugee student support officer at the school of roughly 1,100 students. Predicting when and how painful memories will manifest themselves in students, however, remains a difficult task.

«We went on an excursion and we were on a train,» said Olga Van Eerde, head teacher of the Intensive English Centre, recalling a young female student’s first daytrip with the school. «The train went through a tunnel and she completely panicked. She thought something terrible had happened because everything went dark.»

«That was a trauma response, something informed by her previous experiences. But it’s things like that, totally things we don’t think about, that might trigger responses from our students.»

Of the student body at the state-funded high school, about 86 percent come from refugee backgrounds, making it host to the largest number of refugee secondary students in the state of New South Wales.

Even excluding Fairfield’s refugee population, the school is incredibly diverse, with 93 percent of students coming from non-English speaking backgrounds. Those with Middle Eastern backgrounds form the vast majority, but there are also noticeable numbers of Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders.

The school’s diversity is reflective of the broader demography of Sydney’s southwestern region. In 2016, 71 percent of the almost 10,000 refugees who resettled in New South Wales did so in the southwest. Of those, almost three-quarters live in the city of Fairfield, about an hour outside of Sydney.

The area is also one of the more socio-economically challenged in Greater Sydney. Its unemployment rate is more than double the state average while median household income is almost 20 percent lower.

However, Fairfield High stands out as a beacon of hope and potential for its students and the wider community.

For the school’s newest refugee arrivals, their first stop is usually the Intensive English Centre, located on the school grounds but teaching a separate curriculum. Here, students spend at most five terms learning English and catching up on disrupted schooling before moving into mainstream education.

While English teaching is the primary purpose of IEC, the center also assists students in socially, culturally and emotionally adapting to their new homes.

«Students enrolling in the IEC are generally not familiar with school expectations in the way that kids who have been studying in Australia since kindergarten are,» said Gus Avgoustou, deputy principal at the IEC, noting how new students often leave their desks and walk around the classroom simply because they’re not accustomed to attending school.

«Some students come without (literacy in) their first language, so they can’t read or write in Arabic. That coupled with trauma, the lack of understanding of social boundaries, stresses of resettlement, can make learning difficult,» Avgoustou said.

Another group faced with challenges are older students who have taken on adult responsibilities like financially supporting their families, since living in refugee camps.

«Then they come here and they’re put in a classroom, with a uniform, and we’re asking them to be students,» Avgoustou said. «They get there too, but it just takes a bit more time.»

Altogether, the deputy principal estimates the needs of one newly arrived refugee student would be equivalent to three students in a mainstream high school.

However teachers say students almost always «blossom» after several months of routine and predictability at the center. But in the meantime, they do their best to create a safe and supportive learning environment.

«They help us through everything: the homework, the tests,» Osamah «Sam» Abulkareem, an 18-year-old student said of his teachers. «I’m going to leave the IEC this term (to move into the mainstream high school) so I’m going to miss all of the teachers and head teachers.»

Originally from Mosul, Sam doesn’t like to think about his past in Iraq, and is grateful that the teachers at Fairfield help him so much with his English — a key skill he will need to achieve his dream of becoming an actor.

(Fairfield High students Osamah «Sam» Abulkareem, left, and Maryam Skmen)

Parents also see the impact of the learning environment, which sees students and teachers working together equally in the classroom.

«Here the teachers are friends with the students,» said Ibtihal Andraws, whose son Sarkees is an 11th grader at the main high school, after spending some time at the IEC.

«In Iraq, the teachers would never go down to the level of a student and they’re always above the students, but here they are all friends and they help them a lot,» she said.

Staff at the school also spend a lot of time communicating with parents about everything from disciplinary measures to particular achievements — even acting as a mediator within families and assisting with parenting.

«For parents, if the kids are in school and functioning and settled, that is a massive tick in terms of things they have to do in Australia,» said Nair, explaining that resettlement issues of housing, financial stability and healthcare are often the immediate concerns of parents and adult family members, rather than past trauma.

Despite having missed months, sometimes years, of their education the students who spoke to Kyodo News remain determined to achieve lofty career goals such as becoming an electrical engineer or a teacher, and almost all want to someday visit their homelands.

Teachers say it is not uncommon to hear students say they want to go back and help their country, but they can sometimes feel frustrated that they have already lost so much time and education.

«They are generally in a bit of a hurry, but we tell them you might get there through a slightly crooked way or through a backdoor,» Van Eerde said.

And students at the school do achieve their goals.

In 2017, 96 percent of its students who successfully completed their studies received a Higher School Certificate, and two-thirds of them went on to begin their tertiary education at universities, technical colleges or private colleges.

Maryam Skmen, the youngest of the students spoken to, is determined to become a surgeon.

«I have (seen) many people die in front of me,» the 14-year-old Iraqi girl said. «I just think that (if I become a surgeon) God will give me the power» to save people.

All — Kyodo News+

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