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Volunteers helping refugees resettle in Australia

Relocating to a new country is an unsettling experience for anybody. Navigating the system to access housing, employment, education and health services can be daunting. But if you have fled your country as a refugee, the experience can be harrowing.

Two Mercy Refugee Service projects are making a difference for newly arrived refugees in Australia, and interestingly, they are doing this by drawing on the skills and experience of ordinary Australians.

The Community Links Project, which receives funding from Mercy Works Inc. and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, began in Sydney in 1999. It has been so successful, that in 2006, the Federal Government invited Mercy Refugee Service to extend the project to Wollongong.

The project recruits, trains and supports volunteers to offer a welcoming hand to refugees settling in Australia. Once trained, these volunteers provide practical assistance aimed at developing people’s skills, enabling them to operate confidently and independently in their new community.

For most young refugees they have had either interrupted or no schooling in their country of origin. This lack of schooling is often compounded by the emotional turbulence of adolescence.

When refugee students enrol for school they are assessed, and for most, it is recommended they attend an Intensive English Centre. Time spent at these centres varies, but once completed, students make the transition to mainstream schooling.

This transition period is a particularly stressful time for students, says Sally Macfarlane, Co-ordinator of the pilot project Classroom Connect.

“They often feel isolated and anxious, and subsequently withdraw from classroom participation.”

Launched earlier this year, Classroom Connect provides intensive academic support and mentoring to refugee students at secondary school level using trained volunteers.

Based in Sydney, the pilot is being delivered by Mercy Refugee Service in partnership with the Catholic Intensive English Centre and two schools in Ashfield, De La Salle College and Bethlehem College.

Sally explains that volunteers will work with refugee students at these schools for three hours each week until the end of 2008. Their focus will be on assisting students to make the transition from the Intensive English Centre to the mainstream school.

“The project is exploring the best way to provide the necessary support to students,” says Sally.

Initial funding for the pilot has come from the Commonwealth Bank but if the project is to continue, Mercy Refugee Service will need financial support.

“We’d love a benefactor to come along. It would be fantastic!” says Sister Lorraine Phelan, Mercy Refugee Service Manager.

“It is an excellent project and it can make a difference in terms of helping these refugee children settle much better within the school environment which also impacts on the family environment.”