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Language service offers a lifeline – but for how long?

The University of Sydney’s Refugee Language Program has helped hundreds of people from refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds build English language skills and settle into life in Australia.

As waves of new arrivals land in Sydney from Afghanistan and Ukraine, requests for support from the program’s volunteer tutors are mounting.

Darlington-based English tutor David Needham said an association of Australian women judges had recently been able to assist lawyers and judges to escape from Kabul.

“The Taliban were literally gunning for these women judges who’ve put criminals away, and they were coming after them,” Mr Needham said.

In late 2021, the Refugee Language Program linked four judges airlifted from Afghanistan with staff members from the University of Sydney Law School for individual tutoring to help them understand the Australian legal system and future study paths they would need to undertake to practise in Australia.

In May 2022, the Hon. Elizabeth Evatt AC asked if the program could assist more new arrivals the association helped to escape from the Taliban to make the vital connections that would help them settle in.

“These latest arrivals include a husband-and-wife team, who are both judges, and obviously they had to get out of Kabul as fast as they could with their daughters,” Mr Needham said.

Up until March 2020, the Refugee Language Program offered a raft of free ESL and other classes, as well as one-on-one, face-to-face tutoring sessions each week at the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus.

During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns the program shifted online – focussing on individual sessions via Zoom, Google Meet, email, phone and mailouts for students without access to technology.

Mr Needham began volunteering with the Refugee Language Program in 2018 and says it’s been the most rewarding thing he’s done since retiring from teaching art in secondary schools.

“It’s still a form of learning and teaching, one-on-one, and we have adult learners whose dedicated focus is to get their lives kick-started in a new place.”

Volunteers don’t need to have an ESL certificate. They just need to be a native speaker who’s able to engage in conversation, to sit with somebody (one-on-one), to help them to write things and to read things and to correct their pronunciation.

“These are the things that students ask for,” Mr Needham said.

Refugees seeking assistance from the program come from more than 60 countries including Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, China, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and now Ukraine.

Most have accumulated physical, emotional and psychological scars from these war-torn countries.

Many see the Refugee Language Program as a lifeline.

“Just having a regular place that they can come to week after week to see a familiar face – or faces – who know them, and a bit of the story they’re willing to impart, is an outlet,” Mr Needham said.

“They feel they’re not cut adrift and they’re not alone. They’re not on the other side of the planet with nobody who knows them or knows how to connect with them.”

Clarity and compassion are two qualities Mr Needham hopes Australia’s new Labor government will bring to its refugee and asylum seeker policy.

“We also need to acknowledge how far we’ve shifted since Bob Hawke cried on TV when the Tiananmen Square Massacre occurred, and said, “To all our Chinese students who are here, you’re in”.

“Where is this kind of gesture now?” Mr Needham asked. “Where’s the humanitarian heart?”

Mr Needham said Australia should set demonstrable targets to ensure we can assist people to integrate fully and to know they’re not just going to be “shoved away” to some other country that’s ill-equipped for them.

He also said refugees and asylum seekers needed effective support to live here, including access to social housing and help to find work.

“The people I tutor don’t want to freeload. That’s the last thing on their minds.

“They want to find a pathway – and so many of them are well-educated professionals.

“Why do we make it so hard for them?”

The Refugee Language Program has been running since 2002, initially with funding from the university senate, and then as the recipient of donations from the university’s philanthropic associations.

It is showcased as a long-term success story on the Sydney University website and hailed for its humanitarian impact.

Recently, it has been asked by the university to provide a three-year funding projection to demonstrate how it will finance itself into the future.

Mr Needham said he and others involved in the program had been hoping its 90 volunteers could return to face-to-face tutoring next semester but this return remains “up in the air” until they know whether the university will fund the program.

“In the meantime,” he said, “we’re still looking for more tutors. We’re looking for donations of refitted laptops for students who don’t have them. We also need financial donations.

“We also urge people to write to the university to say that with requests coming in from the Ukraine Association, and from Afghani support groups and others in war-torn areas, it would be a travesty for the University not to fund the program.”

A University of Sydney spokesperson has since said, “The Refugee Language Program has been an important support for refugees and asylum-seekers for two decades, and we’re very proud of all it has achieved. The service it provides remains as vital as ever and we will continue to support it, in line with our institutional commitment to leadership for good.

“Originally funded by the University, over the last decade it has been supported through donations for which we are very grateful. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen our donor support shift towards other University projects such as student bursaries, while the Program’s costs have also risen significantly.

“This year our Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences will fill the Program’s funding gap, and is working with the program team to develop a strategy and operating model that will ensure it is sustainable into the future, with funding from a mix of sources.”


To express your support for the program and to donate see https://www.sydney.edu.au/arts/industry-and-community/community-engagement/refugee-language-program.html


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