Rebecca became involved with St Bakhita Centre through her role at OTEN, TAFE's distance education arm. A TESOL teacher, Rebecca has spent her career broadening the horizons of her students. A great supporter of Sudanese Australians, she wants them to know 'how much they have given back to us'.
Can you tell me how you got into teaching English as a second language?
I started out as a high school teacher and also taught at TAFE in the Riverina region of NSW. When the Aboriginal Education Unit was set up in 1981, I was invited to be part of the pilot program.
I taught Wiradjuri people and was also the Aboriginal representative at the high school because I had developed a close relationship with the community.
'I was absolutely blown away by what Sr Maria, Denise and the Sudanese community had set up. I saw the playgroup and some of the classes; room after room of women learning.'
Did you have a TESOL qualification at that stage?
In the late 1980s, I moved back to Sydney and got a Graduate Diploma in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I taught at a private language college in Manly for a short time and then was offered a position with the Australian Migrant English Service (AMES).
What were you doing at AMES?
I was the Assessment and Referral teacher for the Northern Region and so I was the first stop for all newly arrived migrants and refugees who settled north of the Harbour Bridge. I would do a full assessment of their language skills and resettlement needs. I would refer them to different agencies for support with Intensive English classes for their teenage children or for information about recognition of prior qualifications. I also continued to teach English at AMES.
One of the most important experiences I had during this time was being chosen to do professional development with STARTTS (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors). It was very rewarding training and I had the opportunity to work with refugees from all around the world: from Bosnia, Central America, Afghanistan, Cambodia and different parts of Africa.
How long were you at AMES?
I was at AMES from 1989 until 1998 when I was made redundant along with nearly everyone else because the whole adult migrant English program was privatised by the Howard government.
What did you do after that?
Well, my son saw an ad for English language teachers in Hong Kong. I applied, went for an interview and a month later, I was there, teaching English in a Catholic high school for boys. I was the only Western teacher in the school. The students and all the teachers were Chinese.
What was most memorable about your time there?
I had two Year Eight classes and I used English as a medium to do all sorts of fundraising with my students. We raised money for a different project in China every year: building a school, a hospital, supporting an AIDS village.
What inspired you to start doing this?
It all started the day after September 11. When I got to school, all the teachers were just going to class with their textbooks under their arms and a microphone. You often had to teach using a microphone because there were 45 kids in a class and a lot of noise outside. I couldn’t believe that everyone was just getting on as if nothing had happened.
When I got to class, I dropped what I had prepared and said to the kids, 'I want you to get into pairs or groups and put into words how you feel about what has happened'. Then I got someone from each group to come and write on the board. Soon, the whole board was covered in all these feelings: some were angry, some were frightened, some were pleased because they felt America had it coming to them. Then we talked about what they could do to make a difference. 'Nothing,' they all said. 'We are just little boys and our parents control us every minute of the day and we have to study all the time and we have no money.'
So I said to them, 'Let’s imagine that you are going to write to a kid in New York and say, Dear New York student'. That night I took ninety letters home, read through them and made minor corrections so that the messages could get across. The next day, I brought some note paper and said to the students, 'Now, we are going to really send those letters'.
My husband tracked down two schools near the World Trade Centre. I thought it would be too much to send ninety letters to one school. I found out the Principals’ names, wrote a cover letter and posted the letters.
A couple of months later, letters started coming back. Really beautiful letters with photos of little Hispanic girls in pigtails.
Dear Jeremy, I never thought that someone in Hong Kong would be thinking of me...
Some of the boys went on to become pen pals with the children and one even went to New York to stay with a family.
The experience taught the boys that even if they couldn’t change the world, they could change the world a little bit for someone else.
And then we started building on this.
So that was the beginning of your projects?
Yes, it was. And it was spontaneous, totally spontaneous.
It was so successful the first year. We started writing to multi-nationals in English to get donations of things to sell. We organised huge flea markets and promoted them by writing rap poems in English and performing them at assembly. We did all sorts of things. Then, at the end of the year, actually going and seeing the project and experiencing making a difference.
How did you find the projects?
It wasn’t easy because I needed to have a direct connection. The first year I looked everywhere for a project and finally spoke to the priest at our school. He found a lovely man who was trying to raise money to build a school in a village in Guangdong province. Many of the kids were growing up illiterate because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to school.
How many of your students went on these end of year trips?
About half of the kids went. When they were there they had little diaries to fill out in English about their experiences. They would also get them signed by the kids in the village. That first year, we travelled five hours by bus to this remote village that had no running water or electricity. When we arrived, people came from everywhere to greet us. It was so overwhelming, the most moving experience. We had raised enough money to build a school and pay for about a hundred kids to go to school the following year. I also did a bit of teaching there.
So that was the first year and it was such a success that I thought every Year Eight class should do it.
How long did you stay in Hong Kong?
I was there from August 1998 until August 2006.
Were they devastated to say goodbye to you?
I had the most beautiful farewell. When I came back here, I was exhausted and took a few months off. But I went stir crazy after a while and went back to teaching at TAFE. Then I got a job with OTEN, the online and distance education arm of TAFE NSW.
When did you start with OTEN?
I started in 2007. For the first few years, I was doing face-to-face teaching as well as OTEN. Then I was focused on ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) within OTEN and now I am divided between Adult Basic Education and ESOL.
Our ESOL students are incredibly diverse. Some are well-educated from China or Japan and want to get into uni here. They usually follow an academic-type pathway and may be doing Advanced English for Further Study. Then there are students like the Sudanese who are refugees from Myanmar, Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Some of these may never have had a day of formal education or have been victims of torture and trauma. Another group are skilled migrants who need to learn English quickly so that they can function in an Australian workplace. Adult Basic Education is a program for native English speakers who have had their education interrupted for whatever reason.
When did you first come across the Sudanese?
One day, I was at my desk when the phone rang. It was someone inquiring about our courses. I had been talking to them for a while before I realised they were downstairs in Student Services. So I went down to meet Flora, a Sudanese lady who had been brought there by Kerry, a volunteer at St Bakhita’s. Kerry was making inquiries because she thought Flora was capable of doing further study. And that was the first time I heard about St Bakhita’s.
A few weeks later, Sister Maria, Denise and some Sudanese women came to see me and I gave them a little presentation outlining what OTEN had to offer. I told them that the women could enrol in nationally recognised courses. I had learning materials to show them examples of the work and explained the pathways into different vocational courses. Within OTEN, they could progress all the way from a Certificate I to a Diploma.
Then we got our first enrolment and then another. Denise has been the one who has liaised with us since that initial meeting in 2010. She has been amazing and has totally gone out of her way. We have had 20 to 25 students enrolled in OTEN from St Bakhita’s at any one time. They have done all sorts of courses.
Do the women have to meet any requirements to do an OTEN course?
Yes. We only take people who have basic literacy because they are enrolled under a Federally funded program that requires them to show regular improvement. Also if you don’t have basic English or literacy, then distance learning is probably not the best option for you.
What were your first impressions of St Bakhita Centre?
I was absolutely blown away by what Sr Maria, Denise and the Sudanese community had set up. And the Sudanese women I met were so warm and welcoming. Denise took me around. I saw the playgroup and some of the classes; room after room of women learning.
There was a group of women in the library. These were the students who were almost ready to go to TAFE. Denise introduced me and explained that if they continued to work hard on their English, she was going to recommend that they enrol at TAFE next term.
The women were so eager and so grateful for an opportunity that we might take for granted; being accepted into TAFE. I remember talking to one student whose goal was to get a Certificate II in Cleaning because then she might be able to get a job.
Do you think St Bakhita’s has been important in educating the women?
For most of the women, St Bakhita’s is the first classroom that they have ever been in. There was just too much of a gap for them to go straight to TAFE. St Bakhita’s has given them the support they need to transition to further learning.
When Denise thinks a student is ready, we enrol them in OTEN. The women feel so proud when they get into TAFE. And when they get their first certificate, it is so meaningful for them. They are getting this kind of recognition for the first time as they have never been to school.
It was also really exciting when I started putting people into work placements. They have worked at different community centres, Auburn Toy Library, Aged Care centres and at schools as part of Teaching Assistant courses. Denise has said that the women would come back 'glowing' after a placement. It was so important for their confidence.
The Sudanese women and some men are doing lots of different OTEN courses now. And some have completed vocational courses like a Certificate III in Aged Care or Childcare and are now working. What a journey!
What are the biggest challenges when teaching women and men that have never been to school?
You have to have a lot more flexibility as a teacher and complete empathy with where they are coming from. St Bakhita’s volunteers are so patient and so encouraging. If you have never been to school, never held a pencil, it is a real challenge. Without St Bakhita’s and the support there, how could these women make it through a formal, assessment-focused education system that is all about outcomes? These days, teachers are under enormous pressure to keep students progressing. Students cannot stay at the same level but have to be constantly moving up.
How often do you go out to St Bakhita Centre?
I go there once a term to just be there. Sometimes I may be a bit weary but I go there and get re-energised. Being there with the Sudanese women and volunteers is totally inspiring. I feel so privileged to be a part of that community.
Have you got to know the women well?
Yes. I have got to know a lot of them very well. My life has been so enriched by their friendship.
What challenges do you think the Sudanese community faces compared to other refugees?
I think the cultural gap is greater for the Sudanese compared to other refugees; although other African refugees face similar challenges. They are vulnerable to exploitation and racism. Housing is a big issue because most of them rent. I have been invited to quite a few of their places and am always amazed by their warmth, hospitality and how well looked after their homes are.
And let’s not forget the conflict that is still happening in South Sudan; there is famine now in many parts. For many of them, the trauma is not in the past. It is right there all the time because they are worried about family back home.
Do you think they face discrimination in the job market?
Yes, I do. One of my students has a lovely son who is doing Business at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) in North Sydney. He was finding it really difficult to get a job even though he had done his Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) Certificate. So one day, I was walking through North Sydney and there was a sign outside a pub, 'Bar Staff Wanted'.
I bowled in, asked for the manager and explained that I was enquiring on behalf of a student who was doing a Bachelor of Business at ACU. He seemed interested until I added that he was South Sudanese.
Suddenly, he said, 'No, we are not looking for anyone'.
I was so shocked that I burst into tears.
I told him that my friend was a very responsible young man who would be great for his business.
But he just said that he had already filled the position and had forgotten to bring the sign inside.
My friend did eventually get a job but it took a very long time.
What does success look like for these women?
It is not just about outcomes although certificates, work placements and getting work are easy to measure. Success is about developing a sense of belonging; whether it is as part of the St Bakhita community, the OTEN community or the wider Australian community.
I know that some of the women have brought their neighbours along to St Bakhita’s so that they could attend classes. They have such pride in the centre and know what a bridge it can be to mainstream society. The ladies have the confidence now to reach out to other women and invite them along. To me, that is a sign of success.
What do you wish for the women?
Just for them to feel accepted and have a sense of belonging. I want them to be an esteemed part of a multicultural Australia. To feel that this is also their home.
And perhaps, most importantly, to be aware of how much they have given back to us.