Volunteer English teachers are helping Australia's refugees overcome social isolation

The coronavirus pandemic has added to the isolation of many new migrants and refugees who don't speak English as a first language, but volunteers are stepping in to help. SBS News meets some of them as part of National Volunteer Week.

Jenny Adams and Haneen Shahda

Jenny Adams volunteers as an English teacher while Haneen Shahda, inset, is receiving lessons. Source: Supplied

Melbourne resident Jenny Adams is no stranger to volunteering. 

The 58-year-old joined the Country Fire Association, Victoria’s largest firefighting force, in 1977. This summer she helped fight the East Gippsland bushfires which tore through more than 130,000 hectares of land. She’s also been a volunteer member of the Scouts for the past 25 years.

Her latest volunteering endeavour though is helping 80-year-old Syrian refugee Jeanette* learn English. 

“My aim is to get her involved in a group of ladies doing something, whether it's just talking or a craft group so she discovers other people out there, not just me and her family,” Jenny told SBS News.

“It’s really delightful when she actually cottons on to what the word is, you can see the lightbulb click. And at times we’ve even been able to have a joke because she’s got it.”

Jenny joined the Adult Migrant English Program’s (AMEP) volunteer tutor scheme, run through Melbourne Polytechnic, two and a half years ago after spotting a call-out in the local paper.

When signing up, she said she was looking for more of a “human, person-to-person interaction”.

Since then, Jenny has been travelling each week to Jeanette’s home, which she shares with her sister and 98-year-old mother, to share a meal and a conversation.

But recently, due to COVID-19, their lessons have moved to hour-long calls over WhatsApp.

“It’s not quite the same but at least using that technology I can see her face and see how she’s reacting,” Jenny said.

“[But] you really just can’t do internet Arabic coffee, it just doesn’t work,” she laughed, adding that she is treated like a “long lost friend” by Jeanette’s family.

The AMEP’s volunteer tutor program allows new migrants and refugees to access informal language tuition on a one-to-one basis outside the classroom, on top of 510 hours or formal classes run by institutions across Australia.

Across Victoria, there are 468 volunteers delivering these services.

Melbourne Polytechnic chief executive, Frances Coppolillo.
Melbourne Polytechnic chief executive, Frances Coppolillo. Source: SBS

Chief executive of Melbourne Polytechnic, Frances Coppolillo, said the volunteer program was particularly important because the lessons are in “conversational English” about whatever is relevant to the individual student.

With the forced shutdown of in-person classes due to COVID-19, the one-on-one program has meant many are able to continue their lessons and remain connected socially.

“The fact that weekly meetings can no longer happen would mean that students get no service at all,” she said.

“Often students who come through the scheme are quite isolated coming into Australia without English as their first language, and the coronavirus then compounds that isolation.”

For Jeanette, the conversations sometimes include essential information like who to call in an emergency, but more often just span whatever is on her mind. 

Since starting the lessons, Jeanette said she is now able to go to the shop “and feel confident”. “I have a nice time talking and reading in my lessons with Jenny,” she added.

The former teacher, who moved to Australia three years ago, has been self-isolating throughout the pandemic as a precaution due to her mother’s age. “It’s been a hard time for us,” she said. 

'She's not like a teacher'

National Volunteer Week began on Monday. In an ordinary year, 31 per cent Australians volunteer their time, contributing an estimated 743 million hours to the community, but this year has tested their work like never before with droughts, bushfires and COVID-19.  

CEO of Volunteering Australia, Adrienne Picone, said: "Volunteers are just so valuable to Australian communities and volunteering activities are incredibly diverse". 

"From the arts and education, emergency services, sport, the environment, health, aged care, disability, the list goes on. There's no pocket of our community that volunteering doesn't touch." 

Haneen Shahda, 48, has been learning English as part of the volunteer program.
Child care worker Haneen Shahda, 48, has been learning English as part of the volunteer program. Source: Supplied

Another student of the AMEP’s tutor program, childcare worker Haneen Shahda, said she is grateful to have the support of a volunteer.

She hoped to improve her English so she could feel “comfortable” reading stories to the children she works with, she said. 

The 48-year-old Iraqi refugee and her tutor Anne catch up via WhatsApp on Saturdays but have recently added a midweek call as well.

As a result of the lessons, Haneen said she will now be able to finish her diploma in childcare.

“She’s not like a teacher, she’s like a friend … Sometimes I feel like I want someone to talk to, and she said ‘anytime you want, message me, I am happy to listen to you’,” Haneen said.

“Now I think I am going to do my diploma if she will stay with me.”

*Name has been changed

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at 

5 min read
Published 19 May 2020 at 5:48am
By Rachel Cary, Maani Truu
Source: SBS