For everyone Talking our language: helping refugee students during COVID-19

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A lack of mental health professionals with language skills isn’t the only hurdle in managing the education and wellbeing of recently arrived refugee students.

The vast majority of students at the Broadmeadows campus of the Collingwood English Language School are recently arrived refugees. They usually spend six to 18 months with the school before transitioning into mainstream classrooms. Many have faced unimaginable struggles. Everything from interrupted learning in shattered cities under occupation, to the intergenerational trauma of parents who have experienced torture.

For assistant principal Mairead Hannan, an AEU member who oversees wellbeing at the school, what strikes her most about these students is their remarkable ability to rise above. “They are resilient beyond their Australian-born peers, to be honest, because of the experiences they’ve had. They’re incredibly positive, but I guess the danger for us is that we’re here too early in their journey. Problems may surface later.”

Newly arrived students engage in wellbeing exercises. Photo: supplied.

At the school’s end, the major hurdle faced is a lack of access to professionals with language skills, particularly those with a mental health and wellbeing focus. “We’ve always struggled with funding from the department, particularly for Arabic-speaking multicultural education aides (MEAs), and we always need more than we get,” Mairead says.

They have student wellbeing coordinators at each campus, and a wellbeing leadership team that includes a social worker who speaks Arabic. “But can we find any student support service psychologists, or any allied health workers who speak languages? No.”

The pandemic-enforced second lockdown, necessitating remote learning for many students, poses its own challenges. “Our MEAs have been stretched again,” Mairead says. “Checking in with parents over the phone is very different. We get reports back saying, ‘Yes, the kid’s doing well’ but when I talk to the students, often I get a very different story.”

“Many of our kids are used to wartime lockdown, so it’s been about trying to get the message to families that they are allowed to go out to exercise, that it is safe, to some degree, on the streets.”

On top of using simple visual aids and videos to assist their English learning, the school also has to put a lot of resources into translating government information which is often only in English, or unclear when translated. “Many of our kids are used to wartime lockdown, so it’s been about trying to get the message to families that they are allowed to go out to exercise, that it is safe, to some degree, on the streets.”

The first lockdown was all about making sure each new arrival had access to a laptop or iPad and reliable internet access. That often involved a balancing act with siblings and parents also learning English. This time, having distributed every spare device, including those donated, most students are at least connected. But the way they learn has changed dramatically.

As teacher Kristy Collins explains, their students aren’t grouped by age but by English fluency. “So, we could be teaching 12- and 18-year-olds in the same class, but we had to pivot because we couldn’t have half of our students in class and the other half learning remotely.”

“I can’t force them to turn on the camera if they don’t want to.”

The lack of face-to-face classroom time is an issue. “When you’re stuck on the phone, it seems to create another barrier to vulnerability and honesty,” Kristy says. “We’ve got daily WebEx meetings, which makes it more efficient for us to be able to gauge who might need a follow-up phone call or two.

“Maybe we’re lucky in a language school, because we’re a lot smaller and we’ve got quick access to our wellbeing teacher, our social worker and to Mairead. But a lot of this stuff you’d normally gauge in class, when you can physically see how they’re feeling. I can’t force them to turn on the camera if they don’t want to. So that makes it tricky.”

Kristy emphasises how important it is that these students feel connected to school. “We’re one of the first English-speaking communities they become a part of when they come to Australia. So for us to have the resources to be able to really make them feel reassured would do wonders.”
Mairead agrees that more resources are needed, especially on the translation front. For now, she’s holding onto the simple things.

“I’m concentrating on keeping our students’ spirits up with activities that are not competitive,” she says. “One of the kids plays violin, and a teacher went and found a person who wanted to donate one. So there are lots of creative ways of working on engagement, and I think we’ll only see those grow.”

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