Anthony has taught English at St Bakhita Centre since 2007. He also helps the ladies with everything from filling in forms to fixing broken cupboards. He is constantly appalled by real estate agents and the challenges Sudanese families face in the rental market.
To begin, can you tell me a little about your background?
I was an English teacher at Ballina High School for almost thirty years. I was sent there after finishing uni and loved it so much that I stayed.
How did you find out about St Bakhita’s?
I had been thinking it was about time I did something to help others when I saw a notice in the parish bulletin.
I came here and there was just Tresa and Sister Janine at that stage plus a couple of ladies looking after the kids.
'I think the most challenging thing for me has been dealing with bloody government departments and real estate agents. Sometimes you find difficult people and real estate agents can be appalling.'
What year was that?
So you came on board as an English teacher?
Yes. I did and my brother Dennis started at the same time. He was a teacher as well. There were about ten to twenty students. Sr Janine used to take one group and we’d take the other groups. A lot of the ladies were just starting out then. Some had had some education in Sudan but many hadn’t.
What were the particular challenges in teaching the Sudanese ladies?
Compared to kids who pick up things pretty quickly, adult language learners need a lot more repetition. In the beginning, this was sometimes a little frustrating but then you saw how hard the ladies were trying to learn: unlike most kids. And then as now, they had so many other things going on in their lives; so many problems which meant that they couldn’t always attend on a regular basis. They really are amazing and I just can’t believe how some of them get through given what they have to deal with.
In the early days, what did you teach?
Just the most basic things. You went back to books for writing the letters of the alphabet. They had to learn the alphabet first so that they actually knew the letters. Then you tried to teach them the sounds because that is an incredibly difficult thing for even kids to pick up. So we were trying to teach them sounds, how to make the letters and numbers. It was incredibly basic like going back to Kindergarten.
Some were more advanced and we tried to give them the opportunity to do something harder. But usually you had to keep going over and over the same thing.
How many students did you have in a class?
Some weeks it was about eight and other weeks you might have two to three. That has not changed because they have so many things going on in their lives. They come and go and they move. Besides Margaret, there are a couple of other ladies that have been here since the early days. And women have come here from other parts of Sudan too: Muslim ladies from the North and from Darfur.
How many days a week do you teach at the centre?
Have you got involved in helping the ladies with other simpler tasks like filling in forms?
Well, it is not simple. I struggle too with the damn forms. They always have got forms to fill out and they are often written in ‘legalese’. It is hard for them to do and they come from a society where that sort of thing isn’t common.
What other challenges do they face?
Breakdown in marriages. I can’t do much about that but I can help after the fact with organising their bills and payment systems; things like that. They come in here all the time with bills that need sorting out.
What about housing? How much of an issue is that for them?
It is a huge issue. The real problem, of course, is that most of them rent. I know of only three families that are paying off houses and that is an incredible achievement. The rest are renting. The problem is that they are usually renting very old houses, have lots of kids and their landlords are very reluctant to come out and fix things. And if they kick up a stink, they can be told to just move out. There is little legal protection for them. So often, they have to put up with things the way they are. And if there is a house inspection and something is broken, they need to get it fixed and often they can’t afford to.
Have you got involved in fixing things?
Yes, I have. A few odd jobs that I can do. I can sometimes put the door back on a cupboard and things like that. Housing is a real problem for them and rents are very expensive for what they are getting. They are very house proud and although the houses often look awful on the outside because of the lack of maintenance, on the inside, they are always clean and well looked after. I think they are remarkable.
Have you been involved in Centrelink issues?
Yes. That was what we were doing this morning. One of the ladies had received one of those debt notices for $6,000. And you can’t get any information about how legitimate it is or where it came from. It is very frustrating and so hard to find out about even with two volunteers trying to sort it out.
Have you taught many men?
Sometimes I help the men when I can but I have not had any of the men in my English class.
In the ten years you have been here, how have the ladies progressed?
Some of them have come a long way in terms of learning. They still struggle with writing because writing is the most difficult thing but their speaking is far better for many of them. Most impressive is their gain in confidence which probably comes from being able to come and socialise as a group. That has been as helpful and as valuable as the classes; the fact that they can come and get together and chat to each other because most of them are spread across different areas of Sydney.
Have many of them been able to get public housing?
It is very difficult. Very few of them have public housing. I grew up in Housing Commission: I was one of seven and my father was often unemployed. We struggled but we got a Housing Commission home and that was the difference: the rent was relatively low and that was how we managed. They don’t have that same advantage anymore.
How has St Bakhita’s changed since you first arrived?
When I first came here, they had just moved from the church hall into the old convent where we are now. Sr Janine was doing a great job teaching the ladies a couple of days a week. She also worked in the schools so she would be here in the morning and then go off to teach at other schools in the afternoon. She did a wonderful job getting the English classes started. Tresa was still here then too. She was excellent as well but once peace was declared in Sudan she was going back there a lot to help her community.
When Sr Maria came on as full-time Pastoral Care Coordinator in 2008, the place changed a lot. Maria has an amazing network and was able to get more volunteers and more finance for the centre. She cleared out the old convent and turned all the rooms into classrooms. The whole place changed in terms of size and vision.
And then Anna came on in 2009 and she also had an amazing network and so the combination of Maria and Anna was a real driver in moving the centre forward.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working at the centre? You have been here for ten years, what keeps you coming back?
What about the ladies?
Well, they are so beautiful in so many ways. I don’t think I could cope with the sort of problems they have but they seem to take it in their stride and just keep going. Of course, they have their good and bad days. And they are incredibly grateful for anything you do for them. They are lovely ladies and they need our help. They are not the only group in our society that needs help but many of them do.
What has been the most challenging aspect?
I think the most challenging thing for me has been dealing with bloody government departments and real estate agents. Sometimes you find some really good people on the end of a phone but sometimes you find difficult people and real estate agents can be appalling. If the ladies ring them up, they are just not interested and the message is basically 'Fix it yourself'. In the old days, you could put pressure on them to fix things but if you make them do that now, then 'bye-bye', they get rid of you, often put up the rent and find someone else.
So you think the Sudanese are quite powerless in terms of the rental market?
Yes. They are. There are so many people that want to rent houses these days. People are struggling to get rental accommodation in even horrible places.
Does it help when you go to see real estate agents with the ladies?
I usually talk to them over the phone but I have gone there with the ladies a couple of times. They certainly never get aggressive with me. I am more likely to occasionally get aggressive with them because I just get so annoyed. I usually ring up and say if you don’t do something about this, I’ll call Fair Trade and we’ll see where we go from there. Sometimes that works.
But not always?
Not always and you have to be very careful doing that these days because it is all right for me to say that but what if the real estate agent says 'All right. We are terminating your lease. Go and find somewhere else'. I have calmed that approach down a bit because I am afraid of what may happen to them. It is so hard to find somewhere to rent these days.
The other issue, although the ladies haven’t said much, is that on occasions some of them have had a hard time in a neighbourhood because of racism. Although there are others who have been lucky and have very good neighbours.
What have you learnt from being a volunteer here?
The resilience of people and how they can keep going in terrible circumstances. And generally bearing most things with reasonably good humour. They are remarkable and I’m not sure I could do the same in their circumstances.
What are your hopes for the Sudanese community?
Well, it is what you hope for any community that comes out here; that they will be accepted and that their kids have a chance to get ahead.
Do you think they struggle more than other migrant groups have in the past?
Part of the problem is that the Sudanese were 'dumped' here to a certain extent. We may be a bit more generous than other countries in what we give refugee arrivals but it is certainly not nearly sufficient. We provide 510 hours of English in a class with about fifteen other students and no individual attention. It is all right if you are very bright or perhaps young but anyone else is going to struggle to pick up the language.
I don’t want to downplay how difficult it was for Italian immigrants after World War II but I knew some who came out and had family here who gave them a job in a greengrocer’s shop for example. After a few years, they saved up enough money to get their own greengrocer shop; well that just isn’t possible today. I’m not saying every Italian migrant did that, a lot of them worked in factories but it was an easier situation than it is today.
What are the key challenges the community still faces?
Language is still one. And unemployment. And racism. And housing.
Employment and racism are tied up. And a lack of skills in terms of our sort of society.
What would you say to people considering volunteering?
I think it is rewarding but I don’t think that is why you should do volunteering. You should get involved because you want to help somebody else out: not because you are in any sense superior. But it is very rewarding for the vast majority of people.
Come along and give it a try.