It takes a village to raise a child and teenagers Chol, Mou and Kachol know this well.
All from different villages in Africa, the young men tell completely different stories about their journey from Africa to Australia seven years ago; they have had varied upbringings, all are focussed on different futures, yet they all share the same drive to succeed in education.
Kachol recalls the ‘dusty’ school in Sudan where he doesn’t remember learning very much, while Mou talks about the refugee camp in Uganda where the houses were made from straw and he and his mother had to farm crops to earn their keep.
Mou learned to speak Arabic at school because the teachers didn’t speak English; Chol, originally from Sudan, learned English at a high level in Kenya before he came to Adelaide.
But all three agree that their parents brought them to Australia for a better education and they are working hard to ensure their opportunity is not wasted.
As most young people who have completed or attempted year twelve would know, it’s a stressful time; emotionally charged and fraught with challenges and obstacles.
But for a minority of students, including these three young men, it is so much more than that; it’s a challenge built on pride, esteem and respect.
For refugee students, their parents brought them a long way for opportunities they themselves couldn’t have.
Chol’s mother was a qualified nurse in Uganda but her qualifications are in Arabic so she can’t work as a nurse here.
She’s currently working in aged care and studying, and Chol dedicates his strong motivation to succeed to her.
‘She sacrificed her career for mine. Now I must work harder to repay her sacrifice’ he said.
There is a large community of African students at the South Australian college where the three boys are completing year twelve.
They all moved around many primary schools but settled at the College because of its culturally diverse community, Christian teachings and education program.
Kachol’s mother works at the school as a liaison officer and helps to bridge the cultural and language gap between the African community and the school community; a role that helps to create and maintain an understanding from both sides as they try to recreate the ‘village’ to raise the children.
To bridge the gap would help the students achieve their goals and Mou said in order for him and future students to do that, it is crucial that teachers, fellow students and society understands their background.
English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, Gemma Pannell said refugee students have been through a lot but all have diverse backgrounds so a blanket solution for positive educational results is not the answer.
She said there isn’t enough professional development for teachers to learn about post-traumatic stress students from war-torn environments may suffer.
Pannell was never taught any strategies for dealing with students from refugee camps or asylum seekers because teachers (and to a certain extent, students) get thrown in the deep end and need support so she sought out professional development independently and learned more in her first year of teaching than she did in her whole degree.
‘I was an ESL teacher in my first year out of Uni. I was dealing with really new Afghani and Sudanese refugees. I knew nothing about how to deal with it. All I knew is that they went through hell. They told me their stories. I didn’t even have any way to deal with it myself,’ she said.
But Pannell did deal with it, and is an invaluable resource to the youths and communities she currently supports because she worked to understand their situation; and she cares. A lot.
Luckily there are also groups like the Australian Refugee Association who work with families to help them adapt to Australian society and feel at home.
One of the programs they have put in place in Adelaide has been incredibly beneficial to students.
‘Homework Clubs’ is a highly effective program which started in July 2006.
The program runs in partnership with local councils, currently funded by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and assists secondary and primary students from refugee backgrounds with their studies and overall schooling experience.
The program came out of a need to help vulnerable students from diverse backgrounds and has grown into a support network for students who benefit from the tutoring and, in turn, tutor those younger than them.
Adut is one of those students. She attributes the Homework Clubs as a factor in her academic success.
She finished year twelve last year, although she said some teachers didn’t think she would. Adut is the first in her family of four sisters and five brothers to go to university, despite the pressures of English being her second language and having to help raise her younger siblings.
Adut cheerfully accepts and moves past these challenges in her life and is enjoying her first year in a Bachelor of Visual Arts and says she wants to specialise in jewellery making and ceramics.
But Chol said some African youths haven’t adjusted as well as he and his friends because there are some who have suffered a culture shock and have been sent back to Africa to ‘relearn culture and be taught the way they were taught when they were young’.
He speaks of a culture where respect is paramount, and this is a driving factor behind his academic goals.
‘In Sudanese culture parents decide your whole life. If they want you to be a doctor, you become a doctor. Parents don’t want to bring shame to the family they’ve left behind. They want their kids to do a worthwhile degree otherwise people back home will say Why did you bother taking the kids all the way to Australia?’ he said.
Tutu’s parents live in Africa but she came to Australia with her uncle and her cousins.
She wants to study journalism but said her English skills might stand in the way of that, but she won’t give up.
‘I am motivated because I want to help my country and I want to do something with my life because I saw so much in Africa and I didn’t get to go to school there. There are so many opportunities here in Australia so I want to make the most of them,’ she said.
One day Tutu wants to go back to Africa as a journalist and find her mother and siblings.
Mou, Chol and Kachol believe pride is the biggest motivation they have to direct them toward further study and a career; pride in themselves, pride in their culture and pride for their family.
Chol said, ‘In my culture, we have a huge pride. Parents want their kids to do better. That’s why we want to go to uni’.
As well as pride, Mou is also motivated by family and his Christian beliefs.
‘Parents want to look at you and say, that’s my son. What keeps me going is the fact that I’m here. When I look back and think how come I’m the only one in my village that made it here? That keeps me going,’ he said.
The enthusiasm and motivation in these young people despite the obstacles they face on a daily basis is inspiring.
But what do they need and how can we help?
Places like ARA welcome volunteers into Homework Clubs, but on a personal level, Kachol asks that he and his friends not be judged based on what they’ve gone through, because they all have different stories and abilities.
Rather, he’d like a little understanding.
‘Most people understand the pressures we face. A majority don’t. We have had to be independent too quickly which is good and bad. But I would like teachers to stop pigeonholing us or having low expectations’ he said.
It takes a village to raise a child, but Chol said, ‘When you come here, the village is not available. You come dependent on yourself. In Africa you have a whole village, a hundred people knowing where you are all the time and advising you what to and what not to do. The African people have formed their own communities here in Adelaide but they have different customs, beliefs and ideas so it’s hard to build communities from that.’
These hard working, diligent and driven young people have seen so much more than some of us could ever imagine.
Perhaps we could all benefit from building a village. A village built on pride and respect. It sounds quite nice, doesn’t it?
Story by: Libby Parker