Immigration

Mastering the mother tongue and English, all at once: new program for migrant women

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A refugee women's centre in Newcastle is planning to teach illiterate migrants to read and write in their native tongue to strengthen cultural identity, and encourage children to retain their first language.

At a refugee Welcome Day event in Newcastle, crowds are introduced to the new flavours and sounds of the city.

A long line snakes through one of the town's most significant heritage buildings, once a police station, now contemporary arts space, The Lock Up, which organised the festivities. 

The crowd eagerly waits to sample the Persian lunch on offer. 

In another corner, a group of Syrians - Newcastle's newest arrivals - perform a traditional circle dance; the moves so infectious, onlookers soon join in.

And outside, a fashion parade is taking place, showcasing the works of young Congolese Australian fashion designer Martha Ngoyi.

It's a day to celebrate difference but there's one activity that's shared across all cultures - storytelling. 

 

Newcastle Welcome Day Festival
Newcastle Welcome Day Festival
SBS

Children gather on the floor for the story 'Ziba came on a boat,' a book about a girl whose family has lost everything, and her journey to a new life.

For Newcastle's youngest refugees, their new lives involve learning English.

But Sister Diana Santelban, who for years has been supporting the region's refugees, is concerned that as they assimilate into Australian culture the children lose their mother tongue.

"We're finding five years after these families are getting here, the kids are not speaking those languages very well," she said. 

She says this is partly due to their mothers not being literate in their first language. 

"Most of these women are very intelligent, gifted, creative people, but they never got to go school, and that's the truth. So they do not have proficiency in reading and writing their mother language," Sister Diana said.

"When the culture is lost because the women haven't got the ability to pass on the culture, the culture is gone." 

Storytime at Newcastle's Welcome Day
Storytime at Newcastle's Welcome Day.
SBS

Sister Diana is Project Co-ordinator at Zara's House, a refugee women's support centre.

Most of the women who visit the centre are taking English classes but Sister Diana is planning to run native language lessons.

She believes if the mothers can read and write their own language, their children are more likely to be able to do so too.

The plan is to use those who are literate within the refugee community as teachers.

"We've got young folk here who go, 'I can do that, I can be a teacher, you know I used to be a teacher in Afghanistan, you know I'd love to do this', or 'I used to be a teacher In Syria, Mum was a teacher.' So there are people in the community who can't wait get involved," Sister Diana said.

One of those is 16-year-old Syrian refugee Mawra Alkasim, who arrived in Newcastle from Damascus six months ago.

She believes the lessons could empower the women.

"If you are a kid and you go to your mum, 'Mum, I can't understand this lesson in my school, can you just help me doing it, can you tell me the way I have to follow?' If the mum is not educated, she will be like, 'I don't know what's going on, go to someone else,'" she said. 

"But if she is, her kids will be really proud of her."

Sister Diana with the refugees at Zara's House
Sister Diana with the refugees at Zara's House.
SBS

Ms Alkasim believes the women should be afforded the opportunity.

"It gives them a sense of belonging to their culture, to their language, so they just want to do it because they didn't have the chance to do it in their country, because they had to marry or to work or to have children, so they want to do it now in Australia," she said.

But language and literacy researcher Dr Sally Baker, from the University of Newcastle, believes co-currently learning English and first language literacy could be counter-productive.

"There isn't a lot of research that tells us the impacts of learning first language literacy at the same time as learning a language and literacy such as English, so it's difficult to say what the impact would be and of course it depends on the individual and it depends on the instruction," she said.

"But worst case scenario, it could be really confusing, it could actually impede literacy development in either language."

Storytime at Newcastle's Welcome Day
Newcastle's Welcome Day.
SBS

But Dr Baker acknowledges there are benefits to becoming literate your mother tongue. 

"The literature tells us really strongly it provides all sorts of good, positive aspects for identity, of belonging, of a sort of diaspora to the home country," she said.

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