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'Thirsty for knowledge': Refugee women learning to thrive in Australia's digital world

Dr Ashir Ahmed from Swinburne University of Technology conduct a digital literacy class for refugee women in Dandenong, Victoria. Source: Supplied

Australian data scientists have developed a digital literacy program to teach refugee women in Victoria to adapt to the country’s digital environment.

In a society where banking, government services, food delivery, ride-sharing, and shopping is just a click away, it is important for all to understand how to use the technology and services available to them.

Dr Ashir Ahmed and Dr Jason Sargent at the Swinburne University of Technology are teaching basic computer skills to refugee women in Dandenong, Victoria to help them adapt to Australia's digital environment.

“We have to understand that these women can hardly speak English. They have neither seen nor worked on computers before. They have very limited to no awareness about computers or how they work,” Dr Ahmed tells SBS Urdu.

“The purpose of teaching refugee women about digital equipment is to help them communicate better with the Australian government and the community.”

Further, this program can even help those women connect better with their children, who are often digital natives.

“Also, it becomes a challenge for the refugee women who have their kids go to Australian schools and learn about computers, yet they lack behind in those learnings which creates a gap between their kids and them. This is where the digital project works so well in filling up the digital gap.”

The digital project in Dandenong is being carried out in collaboration with local organisation Community Four, Swinburne University of Technology and a women's group designed to help refugees from South Asia, Australian Hazara Women Friendship Network.

Earlier this year, the project ran on a weekly basis for three months teaching women about the basics of computers, using a keyboard and mouse, and how to write and work on a computer.

Women in the digital course learning how to use a keyboard.
Women in the digital course learning how to use a keyboard.
Supplied

The head of Australian Hazara Women Friendship Network, Zakia Baig says the project has helped give these refugee women hope.

“The purpose of this program is to help these women be a part of the wider Australian community by giving them the basic skills and confidence.

“They should be able to participate in any field in Australia. The computer program gives them the ability to dream again. They learned about the keyboards, the functions and how to use them.”

Most of these women are illiterate and it is very difficult for them to not only adapt to the new environment but to be actively involved in it. Digital learning is one aspect of that.

The network conducts several programs to help people participate in Australian life, including driving lessons and languages courses alongside computer literacy programs. According to Zakia Baig, the recent digital course with Dr Ashir Ahmed's team is motivating women from all ages to learn more about computers.

“Some of these women are above 60-years-old. We are amazed at how passionate they are to learn; they appear so thirsty for knowledge.”

'Digital school in a van' project was launched in Pakistan's outback to create digital awareness in children.
'Digital school in a van' project was launched in Pakistan's outback to create digital awareness in children.
Supplied

Lessons from Pakistan’s backyard – ‘Digital school in a van’

Dr Ahmed migrated to Australia in 2006 and completed his PhD at Monash University in 2010. Since then he has been teaching at Swinburne University, Melbourne.

His passion is to make a social impact on the community.

‘I learnt about how you can make a social impact around you in Australia. I studied how to work for it systematically,” Dr Ahmed said.

Last year, Dr Ahmed went to Pakistan and taught local students about the use of the computer through his program ‘Digital school in a van’.

A digital course was developed for students from year 5 to year 7 for students how to have no knowledge about computers. The technology introduced included tablets, laptops and desktops and a robot.

“The main idea was to help the kids adapt to a computer-friendly environment instead of just using paper and pencil.”

“We went in the remote areas of southern Punjab province in Pakistan. The schools over there were in miserable conditions. Some of them didn’t even have furniture for students to sit in the classrooms."

Many students saw the computer for the first time. Technology is often taken as granted over here but over there the students touched the computers for the first time.

Most of the students and teachers looked at the tablet for the first time.
Most of the students and teachers looked at the tablet for the first time.
Supplied

Mr Ahmed helped the students learn how to use a computer and the way it is improving the lives of people in the world.

“Now the people in the local areas in Southern Punjab near Pakpattan and Sahiwal district have also started to collect funds to buy computers for children’s education.”

The lessons from the 'digital school in a van' project helped Dr Ahmed to develop a local version of a digital program for the women refugees.

“When I came back to Australia I realised that there is a need for such a project over here too.”

Dr Ahmed’s team then worked with the Community Four and Australian Hazara Women Friendship Network to teach the digital course to the refugee women.

Dr Ashir Ahmed talking to the school children in the outskirts of Pakistan the importance of computer.
Dr Ashir Ahmed talking to the school children in the outskirts of Pakistan the importance of computer.

The CEO of Community Four, that runs needs-based- programs for refugees, Gavin Ackerly says that the digital literacy project has been customised especially for the women, with the idea of what they want to learn and how they want to learn.

“Normally you take the course and then invite people; this was from the ground up."

“Just like anywhere else in the world, in Australia too, we rely on technology to engage with the world, it is not about communicating with your friend anymore.

“It is something that the refugee women can learn, it is something that they can access and use it for themselves.”

Looking ahead

The project is now expanding from Dandenong to the Cranbourne area in Victoria to continue teaching digital skills to refugees.

“We will soon have a ‘Digital van’ that will visit these women and teach them free of cost,” says Dr Ahmed.

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