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Refugees teaching refugees: Hope still exists for Nauru

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Afghani children awaiting settlement in 2010 (Image by Hashoo Foundation USA via Flickr)

I recently visited the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre (CRLC), a school for refugees in Indonesia. The principal and most of the teachers are from refugee backgrounds.

They have organised themselves – despite extreme hardship – to teach the children.

The people there showed me that humans can be extraordinarily resilient, even in the most desperate circumstances.

When I arrived, they were warm and welcoming, sitting down with us and offering us tea and dinner at the end of the day.

I was not the only one inspired by the people at this school — the documentary, The Staging Post, was made about the experiences of the refugees there.

I was amazed by the community spirit that surrounded the school. Many of the refugees put everything they have into working at the school and teaching the children in order to give them a better future. The students were learning by using Australian curriculum textbooks so that they would learn good English. This would increase their chances of being accepted into a country with a high standard of living.

The people there spoke very good English, as well as Farsi and other languages, such as Indonesian. In a part of Indonesia where people didn’t speak much English, I felt relieved to be around so many people I could talk to.

The school was preparing for an upcoming four-year anniversary celebration. In some of the classes, the children were preparing songs and dance routines to perform at the event. These were a combination of popular western songs and dances, learnt from YouTube videos, and traditional Afghan performances (the majority of the refugees were from Afghanistan).

I sat in on many classes and took some classes as a relief teacher, while one of the other teachers was away. This was a great experience, as the children were so polite and bright. Despite their situation, they seemed as happy as the children in any Australian school. Many of the teachers had previously been students at the school and had progressed far enough in their studies during their time in Indonesia to teach the younger students.

I was fortunate enough to interview one of the teachers there. She had left her home country as a refugee two-and-a-half years ago and had been working at the school as a math and science teacher for a-year-and-a-half.

Here is a transcript of part of that interview:

IADo you like teaching here? 

Amina*: No, I don’t like teaching, but I have nothing else to do.

IAWhat would you do if you were granted residency in a safe country?

Amina: I would like to be a pilot, or a businesswoman and to travel the world.

IAWhat is your favourite and least favourite thing about the school?

Amina: The kids pass their positive energy to me, so that part of teaching I like. My least favourite thing is hearing the children talk about resettlement and being rejected.

IAWhat is it like living in the Indonesian community?

Amina: It’s good; we feel safe here, we have security and are not afraid of bombs or being killed.

IAWhat are some of the challenges of daily life?

Amina: Waiting, for UNICEF to make a decision about our lives. Our future is unknown. We are waiting and depending on someone to send money so we can survive.

IAWhat motivates you to work at CRLC?

Amina: When I wake up I think my students are waiting for me, so I have to go. At home, I’m not busy so I don’t know what to do. And I miss the students.

IAWhat inspires you about CRLC?

Amina: My teaching. I am proud of being a teacher because I’m doing something for my people.

IAWhat are your hopes for the future of the people here?

Amina: My hope is that one day all the refugees from everywhere will be re-settled in a third country. They will be able to have lives, children, get married, have jobs, a family and the life that they want, a peaceful life without problems or insecurity.

*Amina is a pseudonym

The people in this community are intelligent, competent, warm, generous and resilient. They’ve been left in a terrible situation. They would have much to contribute if they were allowed to live legally in a country where their lives are not endangered.

The children at this school are receiving a far better education than most refugee children. Several of them have been accepted on scholarships to the United States. Over 100 refugee children in Nauru detention centre are not as lucky.

Most of them have developed severe trauma and mental illness, and many have attempted suicide. Other symptoms that have affected the children include hallucinations, social withdrawal, hopelessness, panic attacks, inability to speak, and cognitive and developmental impairment.

Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome has also been seen in many children on Nauru, which is a mental illness with the following features:

  • partial or complete withdrawal in three or more of the following domains: eating, mobilisation, speech, attention to personal care;
  • active resistance or non-response to acts of care and encouragement; and
  • social withdrawal.

Crimes toward children are considered exceptionally bad — due to their innocence, vulnerability and impressionability. The Australian Government is imprisoning and traumatising children for the sake of "Stopping the boats". They are committing one of the worst crimes imaginable to punish people for something that is not a crime — seeking asylum by boat is not illegal. In fact, it is a universal human right, under the UNHCR Refugee Convention.

The refugees at Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre are part of a larger community of refugees who have sought asylum in Australia, but were prevented from entering the country. Instead, they are forced to live in a place where they aren’t allowed to work and receive no assistance from the Indonesian Government.

Indonesia has around ten times the population of Australia, in a far smaller land area and has far less wealth. This makes it less capable of providing these refugees with safety and security.

The refugees have been told by UNICEF that, with the current backlog and rate of resettlement, they could be waiting 25 years to be resettled. This news has disheartened many people at the learning centre.

However, this could change at any time if countries like Australia changed their policy and allowed entry to more refugees.

With a small, ageing population and plenty of space, Australia needs immigration to revitalise its economy and society. It seems to make sense that people who have nowhere else to go should come to Australia and become part of its multicultural community.

Previous wars, mass migrations and times of significant upheaval have led to immigrants coming to Australia. They’ve all brought so much to our society. This is what makes Australia the multicultural country it is today. 

The myth that refugees will take our jobs is racist propaganda. More people will create as many jobs as they occupy because people are consumers as well as workers. It’s in low-density areas that people struggle the most to find jobs — a lack of jobs is not caused by too many people.

The reality is that refugees are not going to cause the Australian "way of life" to fall apart. The cost of not accepting refugees is leaving people in limbo or suffering in detention centres for years.

The Coalition Government has decided that deterring refugees from coming to Australia is worth the torture and imprisonment of innocent people. This is a senseless, unnecessary decision.

It’s time to choose compassion over fear.

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