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Article: What I have learnt

Published: October 20, 2017. Author: Lisa Buchner. Theme:  Refugees.

About The Author

Lisa is Director of Refugee Support programs at Stand Up, working closely with the Sudanese community for over 13 years. She is also a special education teacher and has worked with people experiencing homelessness. Having devoted her life to empowering others to reach their potential, Lisa is well supported by her husband and two children.

What I have learnt

When I started at Stand Up over thirteen years ago, I thought I understood the most effective ways to help marginalised youth, young mums and others at extreme disadvantage. But I soon realised how much I still had to learn.

Fast forward thirteen years, and my work is so much more than just a job. Every day, I have the privilege of working with members of the Sudanese community who have come to Australia as refugees, escaping atrocities. Nothing prepared me for working with this incredible community.

The principles of community engagement are collaboration, empowerment, respect, communication and learning. But how can these concepts be put into practice? Here are ten lessons I have gained over my time at Stand Up.

1. Let’s celebrate our differences.

I love Thursdays. We run our Women’s Group from a church in Dandenong. Every week, friends who are Muslim, Christian and Jewish come together and share lessons and plenty of laughs. One of Stand Up’s most mature volunteers, who has worked with the Women’s Group since it began, describes this group as the epitome of diversity: “We are all together here, with our different religions and cultures, and every week we get along like a house on fire. I wish the whole world would get along like this.”

Last week, I introduced the word diversity to one of the Sudanese women and she was very proud to stand up an hour later and name diversity as an important value. In 2016, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared: “We need societies that recognise diversity as a source of strength.” We are all unique, regardless of where we were born, the colour of our skin, or religion we may follow – and this is something we should celebrate.

2. No-one starts their life when they arrive in a new country.

People in the Sudanese community have come to Australia as refugees, seeking freedom and a new start for their children. They may not be able to speak English, but they can all speak at least two languages – their tribal dialect and Arabic – and often one or two other dialects. They often have no identification papers. But many of them have been to school and university. Many are married and have children. They come with experience and plenty they can teach us.

Just like us, their history has made them who they are today.

3. Young people need to be given responsibility, opportunities and challenges.

We work with 40 young Sudanese people who are at school, TAFE and at university.  We support them with study, vocational and leadership skills. Every week, 25 Sudanese students travel for over an hour to receive two hours of tutoring at the Stand Up office. We have listened to our students, who don’t just want to help themselves – they want to help others too. We recently took the students to their very first volunteering opportunity, making sandwiches for school children. The students came away with “a sense of pride and perspective” and an understanding “that by working as a team we can get the job done” and that “even small things can make a big difference in the world”.

4. We all have dreams.

Take the time and show interest. When I meet a community member, I always ask them what their dreams are and if they could do anything what would it be. One young person once told me she wanted to be a police officer. Her family laughed. A girl can’t be a police officer, they said. But I knew she could be. Now I know of several young people dreaming to join the police force. I am so proud to have watched so many young people become the first person in their family to go to university.

5. There’s so much to learn and so many different ways to acquire knowledge.

A few years ago at the Women’s Group, we spent time learning Australian slang. The following week, one of the Sudanese women returned to the group and was so excited to tell me that she now knows what that local shop actually sells, the one that has Chooks on its sign out the front. Some learning is formalised; much learning is incidental.

6. Understand each other’s culture to put things into context.

In Sudan, the education system has a different model with different expectations. Parents are not actively involved in their child’s school. They don’t have opportunities to volunteer in the classroom and don’t have parent–teacher interviews. The parents tell the teacher if their child misbehaves with the expectation that the teacher will discipline them, not the other way around.

So, we help parents to learn the Australian education system. They go to parent–teacher interviews with prepared questions and they want to know how their children are going and what they can do to help their kids learn. One woman recently questioned her child’s school report and when it was checked, the teacher had, in fact, made an error and apologised.

7. Take the time to get to know each other. It will be worth it.

Let’s not make assumptions about who someone is by the colour of their skin or by their name. “Name-blind” resumes were introduced in 2015 in the UK, and are now being trialled by the Victorian Government, removing name, age and gender from job applications. Whether or not we like to admit it, unconscious bias is all around us.

I was recently sitting with a young Sudanese student. She is the first member of her family to go to university and also helps run her family home, including cooking and paying bills. While we celebrated her achievements, she also told me that when she walks into a shop, the sales person watches her very closely until she leaves. Imagine that happening to you every time you walked into a shop.

8. Let’s empower others to help themselves

When working with the Sudanese community, our goals at Stand Up are empowerment and capacity building. Last year, a group of Sudanese women expressed a desire to learn more, to gain skills to help them in their leadership roles within their community. We listened and together created the Women’s Leadership Group. The women set the goals, including “for us to become leaders in our own communities with a sense of ownership and the capacity to influence and guide others”. They now meet weekly with two volunteer facilitators to discuss issues including current affairs, Australian politics; and develop skills in communication and public speaking.

9. Communication is about both hearing what is said and what isn’t.

As William H. Whyte put it, “the great enemy of communication is the illusion of it”. The difference between understanding what is being said and what we expect it to mean is confusing for English speakers. When you speak to a community member, they will nearly always say what they think you want to hear. Culturally, it’s important to show respect to your elders and to those highly regarded like a doctor or a teacher. Volunteers are regarded as teachers. Members of the community don’t like to complain; if they’re not happy with something, they just won’t return. It is important to speak clearly, and even more importantly to listen clearly.

10. Relationships are the foundation for all community work.

It has taken ten years to build a strong relationship, based on mutual trust and respect, with the Darfur and Nuba Mountains communities. I meet with the community leaders regularly to identify issues, reflect on programs and ensure we continue to work together to meet needs. Our programs continue to evolve as the needs of the community change. I have held new babies, danced at weddings and watched children grow up. I feel privileged to call the members of the Sudanese community my friends.

I am now looking forward to what the next 10 years looks like for the community, and where the next generation of young people are headed. I look forward to being part of this exciting journey.