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SAIL Assignment ,

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SAIL Assignment ,

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									                                      SAIL Assignment ,
                                       by Irene Christopoulos

Under the large wooden cross, children climb over and under pews. They jump from the stage and
chase one another in and out of the room, past the tired looking organ that looks as if it has seen
better days. Yelling at each other, they zig zag in and out of the aisles. The room is abuzz with
activity, so much so that you have to shout just to be heard. This is not the usual scene at my local
Anglican church, unless of course you happen to come along on a Saturday morning.

Beneath this chaotic exterior, something very special takes place here each week. This small church
in Footscray is transformed into a centre of learning and community spirit every Saturday thanks to
the volunteers of the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning Program (SAIL). Here, members of
the ever growing Sudanese community in Melbourne’s western suburbs, indeed as far away as
Geelong, are made to feel welcome as they receive tutoring in English and form a bond with other
members of this community.

SAIL was established in 2000 by two friends who originally met at high school. Anna Grace Hopkins
and Matthew Albert responded to an advertisement they saw whilst at Melbourne University calling
for people to spend time with five teenagers from Sudan who had only recently arrived in Australia.
The were consistent in their contact and found that the number of people they were seeing each
week began to grow as cousins of the teenagers they originally began to visit came along to meet
them. According to Albert, “that story has been repeated over and over again so that here we are,
five years later- three campuses, 250 volunteers and about 400 people coming to us each week.”

The majority of those 400 people attending SAIL programs each week come from Melbourne’s
West. Suburbs such as Footscray and Braybrook have become home to a large number of Sudanese
families who have taken up refuge in Australia. The City of Maribyrnong’s website states that the
municipality “ranked highly in attracting new arrivals from Sudan…”

According to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, migrants from Sudan settling
into the City of Maribyrnong during 2002-03 represented 17.55% of the total number of new arrivals
into that municipality, an increase of 10% on the previous year.

Zina* is yelling at her children while she waits for the mini bus to come and pick them up. She can’t
get them to wait with her and she does not want to miss her ride. She is from the south of Sudan.
“Most people that come to SAIL are from the South”, she informs me.

She speaks English very well and I wonder how she has managed to grasp the language in the one
year she has been in Australia. “I lived in New Zealand for five years before coming to Australia.”
It’s as if she has read my mind.

Zina moved to Australia to be closer to the few relatives that she has here who have left Sudan. She
tells me that “there are some things that are good and some things that are bad” about living in
Australia. The “bad”, I come to realise, is the fact that her parents and other family members are
still in Sudan. “But being here is good for the children.”

* Not her real name
There is reluctance among this community to speak of the things they have left behind. Perhaps it is
the corrupt government and militia groups in Sudan of which they are afraid to speak, or perhaps it
is simply a case of not wanting to re-live the atrocities that many have experienced, atrocities such
as the rape of girls, the violent beating of women and children, and the imprisonment of innocent
civilians.

Sudan has been plagued by civil war since 1956 with an estimated 1.9 million people having died as a
result of this war, and a further 4.4 million Sudanese estimated having to leave their homes to seek
refuge in the camps of neighbouring countries. Other than the civil war, Sudan has also suffered
from tribal warfare between the two largest southern tribes – the Dinka and the Nuer.

“The classic story,” according to Albert, “is hearing about people walking for periods of months
across Sudan to get out. People have been in camps, slum areas, particularly in Cairo for up to 10
years.” He hesitates before he tells me the experience that “really sticks in your mind – parents
having to choose which kids to bring.”

What this community is willing to speak about quite openly is just how much they appreciate the
SAIL volunteers. Zina becomes animated as our conversation turns to the SAIL program. “They are
very important for the Sudanese community because most people who come here from Sudan
cannot speak English. But it is not just the language. They do lots of other activities too.”

Camps, day excursions, workshops and support services are what SAIL offers as well as free English
tutoring classes. With refugees from Africa still arriving in Melbourne on a weekly basis, the demand
for such services is great. There is a need for volunteer tutors who are willing to give of their time to
tutor children, teenagers, mothers, and fathers.

On this particular Saturday, there are over 20 potential tutors registering their interest, the largest
number SAIL has ever had. They are here for a run down on how the program operates and are
given a tour, consisting of the kinder room (where the zero to five year olds play), the library and a
brief stop outside where a make shift classroom is set up - tables and chairs on the lawn with
teenage students and their tutors at work in the midday sun. It is during this leg of the tour that I
overhear a young boy telling one of the co-ordinators that some boys have climbed onto the church
roof. A volunteer goes to investigate.

Ken, a potential tutor, is there for the first time and tells me he is interested in tutoring teenage
boys. His girlfriend is already a tutor and he has seen first hand how much joy it brings her. “It’s
that old thing of wanting to put back into the community”, he explains. “I’m an artist and musician,
so maybe I can do something with music.” A volunteer from the kinder room calls out for someone
to cut out shapes. Ken excuses himself. He is needed.

I can’t help but notice that almost all of the volunteers at the Footscray campus and nearly all of the
potential volunteers on the tour are young. Sue, a volunteer in the kinder room who has a caring,
warm presence about her, tells me that most are University students; but not her. She became a
volunteer with SAIL three years ago after she saw some information up on the notice board of her
gym and decided to find out what they did exactly. Like Ken, she too “wanted to give back to the
community.”
“It’s funny. Most people have this weird notion that volunteering is about giving, giving, giving,”
Albert tells me, “I mean yeah, you give a bit but you get so much out it. I absolutely love it. I
wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. And the Sudanese community are very, very welcoming.”

Amongst the things he lists as “getting” from volunteering with SAIL is the fact that he meets so
many different people, he hears so many different experiences from people and what they have
been through and that it makes him a real part of the community.

“You get so much out of it”, he continues, “that at the end of the day it becomes a selfish
enterprise.”

Whilst Albert convinces me that he loves what he does, I am not convinced that anything he does for
SAIL is selfish. After all, this is a man who oversees three campuses that cater for around 400
students. He, along with his team, manages a team of 250 “phenomenal volunteers” – tutors, mini
bus drivers, people who help to make lunches – and he does it all without being paid a cent for it.
He still needs to earn a living; in fact he is a lawyer. As for SAIL, it is funded by various philanthropic
organisations.

Nagi Gasin has never heard of SAIL. He is a quiet man from the north of Sudan, where things are
relatively peaceful. “There is no war in the north,” he tells me. “Not like in the south”. Gasin has
lived in Footscray for a year, having left Sudan for a better standard of living. “The salary in Sudan is
not good,” he tells me. He was a lecturer at a College of Music & Drama in his homeland and has a
Masters in Psychology but is yet to find employment in Australia. He cannot understand “why the
Australian government does not use me, use the skills I have?” He has a case manager at the Adult
Migrant Education Service (AMES) who is helping him look for employment and in the meantime,
Gasin is studying English at TAFE to help further his chances.

Apart from the challenge of finding a job, Gasin tells me that as a newcomer to Melbourne it was
very difficult for him to know where to find others from Sudan who he could approach and befriend.
We are literally sitting no more than a few street blocks away from that little church which every
Saturday is a hive of activity, where hundreds of members of the Sudanese community meet, and he
yet knows nothing about it. It highlights the point he makes next, that there needs to be
information readily available to newcomers into Australia. Refugees and migrants who come here
need to know where the support networks are.

Albert agrees and says that the biggest issue is awareness. “There needs to be an awareness of the
background of the people. It has a big impact on the services provided. If you don’t have
awareness, then you don’t know what is needed for this community.” He gives the example of
people referring to “Sudanese” as a language. “That isn’t a language,” he tells me without a hint of a
smile. (The official language of Sudan is Arabic).

“The community is not provided with what they need but the people who should provide
information don’t know what they should be providing,” he continues.

As we speak, locked in the small library surrounded by books which have all been donated, the noise
from outside begins to fade. Most of the families have caught their ride home. The boys that were
on the roof now have their feet firmly on the ground. It has been almost three hours since the tour
with the potential tutors and Albert has not stopped. He continues to tell me about SAIL and speaks
of the Sudanese community with passion, not a hint of exhaustion in his voice.

“The ultimate aim for SAIL,” he tells me, “is that we become absolutely obsolete. That would be
fantastic. The day we become obsolete is the day the community is not needing what we provide,
which would be great. We aim not to be needed…when that will happen is a bigger question.”

For now though, Albert and his team are needed by the Sudanese community. The scene may be
chaotic, but you get the feeling that it doesn’t really matter. Something more important than just
learning English takes place here. A once displaced people find a place and make it their own, they
find a community and become active members of it, and they find a group of “phenomenal
volunteers” who make it all happen just because they want to.

								
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