It was a friend in my Rotary club who mentioned volunteering to teach English to people seeking asylum. Having read a lot about their plight and having a background in language teaching, I was interested.
It meant travelling from home for an hour each Monday morning to reach Sunshine by 10 o’clock. On arriving at the Sunshine library my first day with a friend and his wife who were already tutors, I was surprised at the number of enthusiastic people waiting outside the library for their two hours of English.
Our coordinator allocated me two brothers on community detention, having fled in fear for their lives from their homeland. I asked them how they felt about living in Australia; they told me that they were happy because they felt safe here. This was despite having to leave their family and friends, being unable to communicate with them or to continue with their successful careers.
For me teaching them was an eye-opener: they had been in Australia a relatively short time and had already mastered writing in a different script. They were excellent learners and always keen to do further work at home. They were also very adept in using their phones to help with translating – I was kept on my toes! In addition they were able to operate well in the community, shopping, visiting the doctors and medical specialists (because of the torture they had suffered in their homeland), getting to the gym and the library and using public transport. I was shocked to learn that, initially, people seeking asylum are not allowed to work and that the delay in gaining permission is so protracted.
As time went by they told me the story of why they had to leave home and how they travelled across the world under extreme conditions seeking the safety of our country. I feel privileged by their trust in sharing this with me which at times I found very emotional.
Today they are happy to be safe but sad that they are not able to make contact with their loved ones because it is unsafe to do so, yet with help one has had the opportunity to work and the other is having much success studying English as a Second Language at a university.
A great benefit for me is that I have made new friends.
Ian volunteers with Jesuit Social Service’s English Language Support program in Sunshine. You can find more information about it here.