“Your body is in the classroom; but where is your heart?”
Hazara refugees fill a classroom in Auburn for their nightly English lessons.
The topic for the class is seasons and an unpleasant reminder of the changes in time since they were last in their home country of Afghanistan.
For many, their time away from home has eclipsed five years; children have grown up not knowing their fathers, townships have been plagued with trauma and families have been ripped apart.
The harsh realities of a displaced population drive the Hazara people to take risks to come to safer countries like Australia and work to send money home and provide for their families.
Hassan Rezayee spent 11 days at sea before arriving in Australia as an asylum seeker in 2012.
Now, he runs a refugee education centre in Auburn called Human Care Welfare and offers free assistance to other Hazaras who have fled from persecution.
“What I got from Australia I am trying to give back,” Mr Rezayee said.
“I work, I pay tax, I have a family and I look after communities here.”
There are 300 students enrolled in the centre who participate in a range of English lessons each night in an attempt to open up opportunities in Australia.
“They know that if their English gets better they can get better jobs, have greater employment security or even work for themselves,” says volunteer teacher Lesley Ashwood.
Demand for lessons at the centre was at its peak in 2012; with 500 students enrolled and a range of additional classes in fitness, music and driving assistance.
As time has worn on and conditions for Hazaras abroad have deteriorated, the mental health of students has been on the decline.
“Every day there is a bomb blast, every day there is a targeted killing,” Mr Rezayee said. “They are worried about their family and their visa situation here is unclear.
“Some of them have been rejected by immigration and they are stressing about having to go back to the dangerous life where they came from.”
While they have created lives and communities in Auburn the prospect of not seeing their loved ones indefinitely weighs heavy on their hearts.
“Under the legislation of December 2014, their families cannot come,” Ms Ashwood said. “Family reunion is not allowed. The legislation is really draconian; it’s cruel.”
She expressed concern at the rate at which invitations for refugee status were being issued to her students.
“I wonder how quickly and how accurately they will be processed and how carefully they will be considered.”
Rahmatullah Faizi, 26, is one such refugee waiting for the green light from authorities.
He was a researcher back in Afghanistan and is now determined to hone his English skills to get a good job.
“I try it everyday. If I want to live in Australia I need to study English because if I can’t speak I can’t do anything,” he said.
“I like Australia because it is a good country with good people.
“In four years I have seen everything and I love the people because they are all kind.”
Mr Faizi’s story is like many at the centre and indicative of their determination to succeed in this country.
“They try and do as much for themselves as they can,” Mr Rezayee said.
“They don’t want to unnecessarily ask for help, they try to do as much as they can for themselves.”
While their futures may be uncertain, the seemingly small victories are what buoy the students’ morale.
Tales from inside a detention centre
Former teacher at the centre, Adele Dumont went on to work at detention centres in Curtin then Christmas Island and has used her experiences at both to show Australians the real people behind the refugee status.
”Either they [refugees] are terrorists that don’t want to fit in or they are victims and we need to help them; fragile and vulnerable,” Adele Dumont said.
She says the debate in Australia is polarising but showing individual stories is the only way to cut through it.
“Once people hear individual stories and meet people then I hope the extreme opinions will change.”
Ms Dumont worked at Christmas Island for two years and has published a book detailing her experiences teaching Hazara refugees.
For many students it was the first time they had been in a classroom or seen a white woman, let alone be taught by one.
Far from rejecting the unknown, Ms Dumont says they came to be some of her most diligent students.
“They became addicted to the class; they would line up half an hour before class and beg to stay afterwards,” she said.
“In Afghani culture teachers are gods and they really did treat me like a princess.”
She said it was a privilege to teach in the centre and holds hope for the second generation of refugees in Australia.
“They have survived risky journeys and made sacrifices for their family; they will raise their children to be model citizens.
“The kids that are here speak with Aussie accents and are at the top of the class.
“The second generation of refugees provide a story of hope.”
Source: The Daily Telegraph (Australia)