Killara Ulm and Sally Win both live in Sydney, but they come from different worlds. Killara was born in Sydney and Sally in Yangon, Myanmar. Killara teaches English to international students, while Sally is a cook for a café and catering business. Killara once went to Myanmar for a holiday with her husband. Sally fled Myanmar to save her life. As a Muslim married to a Buddhist, she faced persecution in her home country, where the law restricts interfaith marriage.
Despite their differences, soon after Killara and Sally met through the University of Sydney’s Refugee Language Program, they became friends. Killara, a former University staff member, volunteers as a teacher with the program, which Sally attends to improve her English. They got talking at one of the Saturday classes, then started meeting for one-on-one tutoring sessions.
“We really hit it off,” says Killara. “I didn’t necessarily expect that, because of our different backgrounds, but we have a lot of laughs together and we have a lot in common.”
Says Sally: “I don’t feel like she’s my tutor. She’s like my sister.”
In what other circumstance could you have lunch with 20 people from different countries, talking and learning from each other?
The Refugee Language Program is entirely funded by donors. Since the program began in 2003, more than a thousand asylum seekers and refugees have attended its English classes and worked privately with its volunteer tutors.
“We have students from 64 different countries,” says program coordinator, Lesley Carnus. “The program provides them with opportunities they can’t find anywhere else. As well as free English-language classes, we try to break down barriers by introducing them to Australian ideas and customs, and providing the chance to socialise.”
When Sally arrived in Australia in 2017, she had never felt so alone. Her husband had to stay behind in Myanmar and she knew no-one in her new country.
“I couldn’t speak English very well,” she says. “I didn’t even know how to apply for a protection visa. I didn’t understand how to catch the train, and it was very hard to find accommodation and a job. I cried a lot. I used to call my husband and say, ‘Why am I alone here?’ It was all so stressful for me.”
Not only has the Refugee Language Program helped improve her English, it has introduced her to people from all over the world. “It doesn’t feel like a class,” she says. “It’s a very warm place. It’s given me new friends from different cultures and different countries.”
Her friendship with Killara has been a lifeline. Initially, their tutoring sessions focused on language skills. Soon, though, Killara was helping Sally with her vocational studies in hospitality and aged care. She visited Sally in hospital when she was sick. They started catching up over lunch and dinner.
For Killara, the friendship has been a window into an unfamiliar world. “It’s been really interesting to find out about Sally's background and her experiences,” she says. “It’s given me much more awareness of what’s going on outside Australia.”
Volunteering with the Refugee Language Program, Killara says, has given her a new perspective on her own life. “In what other circumstance would you be able to have lunch with 20 people, all from different countries, all talking together and learning from each other? It’s like a family.”
As Sally waits for her application for permanent residency to be assessed, she is dreaming of starting her own business – perhaps a take-away shop. “I feel lucky,” she says. “Now I’ve got a family here, I’m really happy.”
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