Margaret started teaching English at St Bakhita's in 2009. She has been amazed at how her students have mastered many things we take for granted. And they have done this while juggling children and the many challenges of resettlement.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
After completing an Arts degree with an Education major, I worked mainly in publishing.
While raising a family, I became aware of the difficulties faced by immigrants, especially women, whose family responsibilities prevented them finding time to learn English.
So I trained with the Adult Migrant Education Service (AMES) and spent several years teaching English to adult migrants one-on-one in their homes.
'Being able to write remains especially difficult for many of the women. For those who do not speak Arabic, there are few bilingual dictionaries available in their tribal languages.'
How did you hear about St Bakhita’s?
Sister Maria asked for my help when St Bakhita’s began to expand in 2009. I started teaching English one day a week and have been there ever since.
What were your initial impressions of the centre?
My initial impression was that the centre was based on a real understanding of what the women needed. Sr Maria was not only an experienced teacher but had a long association with the Sudanese community. She had even spent twelve months working in South Sudan so that she could better understand their cultural background.
She spent a lot of time with Tresa, Anna and the other community leaders giving them practical assistance as they set up the centre. In a pragmatic Josephite way, she made sure there was child minding so that the ladies could come and concentrate on learning English while their children were taken care of. Volunteers were there not only to teach but to give advice on day to day matters like paying electricity bills and navigating driving, citizenship and Centrelink requirements.
How has volunteering at St Bakhita’s affected you personally?
It has given me a deeper understanding of the difficulties these women face in trying to learn English. Over time, I have had a better awareness of the social and life issues that were helpful to raise in class.
What have you been struck by at the centre?
I was struck by the commitment of Sr Maria; nothing stopped her. When there was a need for more space, she found it; renovating the small former convent with the help of volunteers to provide more classrooms. She then recruited more teachers and child-minders from her network of contacts. She used her professionalism and sense of order to develop an adult education program that worked for men and women that had never been in a classroom before and who had no knowledge of written language.
What has been the most challenging aspect of working at the centre?
Sometimes progress is slow. Let’s not forget that learning a foreign language as an adult is hard even when you are literate in your own language. Another challenge is that many of the concepts behind English words are new to their experience so they don’t have the cultural context to help.
Being able to write remains especially difficult for many of the women. For those who do not speak Arabic, there are few bilingual dictionaries available in their tribal languages. There is a small Dinka/English dictionary but then the problem is that they are sometimes not literate enough in either language to use it. Imagine learning a new language and not being able to use a dictionary to look up words you don’t understand.
It is hard to see the physical problems some of the women suffer from but can’t get help with because of the cost. Many have back, hip and knee problems and are in constant pain but cannot afford private physiotherapy.
They also have a lot of financial worries and the stress associated with finding enough money to pay their rent and feed their children can affect their progress. Many are single mothers and when they miss class it is almost always owing to a sick child or an appointment at school.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working at the centre?
The most rewarding aspect has been simply to spend time in the company of the Sudanese community.
In a classroom context, the most rewarding aspect has been to observe the gradual but huge progress in the women’s understanding of how a language class works and how books work. The task of finding a page number, finding a numbered exercise are now second nature but were incomprehensible when we began. These men and women have had to learn so many small things that we take for granted.
Another rewarding thing is to see how committed the women have become. Attendance is more regular as their small children start school and they have more time to come here.