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Connecting with refugees in Australia

Anne Smith has been a Mercy Connect volunteer at Canterbury Girls High School since 2010. She spends three and a half hours a week at the school supporting three students: one in Year 12 and two in Year 11. We spoke to her about her work.

What drew you to volunteering for Mercy Connect?
‘I had retired the previous year from being a secondary school teacher and I wanted to do something that assisted those who are disadvantaged and I wanted to use my teaching skills. I’ve worked before with people on the fringes of society and it’s disturbing to see what effect that has on them.’

What impact does your work have?
‘Although I’m there to help mentor the students I can see that the bigger impact is in helping the girls build confidence. They can ask me any questions about their class work that they didn’t feel able to ask in class. As they are Year 11 and 12 students they bring in their official assessment tasks. The language in these tasks is very formal and I help them make sense of it.’

What would you say are the biggest issues the refugees you work with are facing?
‘Many of the refugees come from fractured families – some are here with no parents or one parent. It’s also a totally different culture and they are very conscious of that. The students also have limited fluency and literacy in English and some have had no previous experience with formal education. Because of their challenges with language they and their parents have to adjust their aspirations for what they will do after school.’

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work with Mercy Connect?

‘For me it’s the positive and welcoming attitude of the students I work with. The students discuss Western attitudes to their culture and I hope their experience in talking to me provides a positive counterbalance to many of the attitudes which are reflected in the media. Some students conversations reveal an awareness of the prejudices in our society to refugees and Muslims. Hopefully, we are making a difference.’