Sudanese Australian teens deserve better

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10 March 2017

By Marco DiCesare
Originally published in the Herald Sun, 16 January 2017, 9.50 pmSudanese student at Caroline Chisholm Catholic College, Baptist Zachariah

Let’s hope that Sudanese Australian youths don’t buy into the public narrative about them, dominated, as it is, by perceptions around crime in general and the Apex gang in particular. 

In my experience, as principal of a school with a significant refugee population, students from Sudanese backgrounds have much to offer, if we, as a society, embrace them. In fact, the resilience, persistence and performance of these kids would put many of their Australian peers to shame.

For example, Year 11 student Baptist Zachariah, age 18, fled with his mother and five siblings through jungles from Uganda to escape conflict. When he arrived in Australia almost three years ago with the help of the UNHCR, he spoke five languages — unfortunately English wasn’t one of them.

He’s now not only speaking English, but, with personalised coaching from our staff, has learnt to write passable essays, a task he’d never done before (in any language).

As a child in Sudan, Baptist was always collecting parts from old and discarded devices to create electronic inventions.

Now, with his natural talent for maths and the help of facilities he never could have imagined such as 3D printers, Baptist aspires to achieve a high ATAR next year and to study engineering at university.

Baptist has also risen to challenges on the home front, stepping in to take extra responsibilities when his mother fell and injured her back in August.

These included household tasks such as washing clothes and dishes; carrying groceries (the family does not own a car); and ensuring his two high-school-age siblings get to school on time every day.

Yes, Baptist is a talented individual, but he’s also part of a school community dedicated to learning excellence where we’ve taken a number of initiatives to help students from refugee, materially poor and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. These include a fee-assistance program, free English and swimming lessons for parents, a breakfast club and an afterschool homework club so that all students can get academic assistance – regardless of their parents’ levels of education.

Our college has about 70 Sudanese students and our social worker/refugee coordinator tailors support individually to each one depending on their needs.

This could mean additional literacy, emotional or numeracy support; fee assistance or material aid; and referrals to external agencies.

There are challenges but, in the main, our refugee students are flourishing both academically and socially.

Undeniably, there are some youth of Sudanese backgrounds committing crimes – as there are of other backgrounds – however, the stigma affects the entire community.

I worry for my students when I see reports of Sudanese people being yelled at in the street, typecast as gang members, stopped by police and even changing their names on job applications in the battle to overcome discrimination.

My students deserve better.

Marco DiCesare is principal of Caroline Chisholm Catholic College, Braybrook 

Reproduced with permission by the Herald Sun.