Refugee Week 2020: Staying connected during COVID-19

16 June 2020
Adapting to a new life as a refugee in Australia is difficult enough, without the added stresses of a global pandemic. How do refugees feel settled in Sydney, at a time when the world itself is so unsettled?

Refugee Week is a timely reminder of the unique challenges faced by our Refugee Language Program students during COVID-19.

The program, which relies heavily on volunteers, usually runs four face-to-face sessions a week for refugees in Sydney. As well as free English classes, the program assists with practical job advice, technological support, and social connection. 

With COVID-19, face-to-face classes have been paused, and the refugee community have had to cope with increased levels of isolation. Many of the students are not only struggling with the effects of social isolation in a new country, they are also lacking the resources to connect and study online that most of us take for granted, such as a computer or smartphone.

Thanks to the generosity of donors and volunteers, the program has been able to quickly implement a Distance Learning Program, linking each student with a tutor who uses whatever technology is available to the student to learn. That could be via email or phone, or Zoom and for students without computers, study materials have been posted to them.

There are currently approximately 35 refugee students linked with tutors who stay in contact with learning activities to meet their individual needs, from reading articles and pronunciation and listening exercises, to grammar and Australian slang. The program continues to enrol new students on a regular basis.

Building English language skills is incredibly important for not only finding work and further study opportunities, but to also build social networks, which has become even more challenging during COVID-19
Lesley Carnus, Program Coordinator

Refugee Language Program Coordinator Lesley Carnus from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences said the students come from all over the world with varied levels of education.

“Our students range from a woman who never attended school in her own country, and is receiving literacy support, to several university professors, to a young woman who worked in artificial intelligence and hopes to enrol in a PhD at Sydney."

“Building English language skills is incredibly important for not only finding work and further study opportunities, but to also build social networks, which has become even more challenging during COVID-19,” said Lesley.

“Our volunteer tutors include academic and professional staff and students from the University as well as retired teachers, IT specialists, doctors, lawyers and businesspeople. Like our students, our volunteers live all over Sydney and have a range of life and work experiences,” added Lesley.

Tim Soutphommasane, Director of Culture Strategy, believes programs such as the Refugee Language Program are important not only for the students involved, but for Australia's future. "Making a new start in Australia can involve profound challenges. That’s why it’s so important we support and mentor students from refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds. Programs such as this make an enormous difference, and support the contributions that these students will be making to Australia in the future,"  said Tim. 

Keeping connected

To help maintain motivation while they are unable to learn face-to-face, the program has been running a Creative Writing Competition. Students have been sent a set of postcards featuring artworks to choose from and write about as their entry.

“We have received some very creative and touching submissions from students including narratives, essays, fairy tales and poems,” said Lesley.

"I am writing about the fruits in the basket on the table. Looking at the picture of mixed fruits with different flavours and colours in one basket, reminds me of the safe house I use to live in with different ladies from different parts of the world with different cultures and background, yet still we managed to live in peace and harmony under the same roof. The reflection of that good relationship still lives in our memories and that’s what keep us as friends until now, that’s why I love things that have multicolour it reminds me about things happening around me – and around the world."

For more information about volunteering with the Refugee Language Program, contact Lesley Carnus via email or phone +61 2 9351 6796.

Related news