Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Annerley Literacy Center: United Nations

Mary, a puckish Sudanese 26-year-old mother of 4 was a woman who before coming to Australia had never been to school, never learned an alphabet, a woman full of energy and patience, a woman who seemed to trust her world way beyond reason.

Ruth, her two year old, came to the literacy centre with her mom on Mondays. Nama, her four-year-old son came the rest of the week, but on Mondays he went to a preschool where he learned to speak English better than his mom.
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On Monday when I arrived ten minutes late at the Annerley Literacy Centre, George, the coordinator, asked me to teach two groups, one of which included Mary who had never learned her alphabet in the Sudan where schools were not available to women, just to children of women. Two others were Masa, a young Sudanese man who had been in Australia for only one week, and Mammoud an Ethiopian whose smile and English were much better than Mary’s, and whose patience was a constructive addition to our lesson.

And then, of course, there were the usual mix of Korean students who came to the centre in order to practice English conversation, the intermediate group who had not paid quite enough attention in elementary and secondary school or who were shy and unwilling to make errors in front of each other. They had been in Australia only a short time.

There was also Lucy, the basketball player whose fingers went numb, who came to Australia from Yugoslavia, but who wasn’t willing to mention Bosnia, Serbia, or any other small enclave of her past. Her smile, her tall athleticism contrasted with Mary, whose small dark face absolutely lit up in the midst of class.

Why is Mary’s story and that of Masa and Mammoud, and Lucy important? Because they bring grace, balance, and good will with them from the impossible situations which they fled as they arrived in Brisbane where life seemed a tad safer.

Safer, that is, as long as the Howard government didn't have a say in the matter, civilized as long as the Family Court of Southern Australia stopped a ruthless federal government minister who insisted that children be placed in detention for the crimes of their parents.

We don’t talk much about politics at the literacy centre; it seems more important to focus on the positive nature of the world. We have talked about Bush tucker, the indigenous array of foodstuffs available in their strange new home down under.

We also talked about travel, how far we flew, from where, who flew the farthest, and what stops were made in our long journey to this place that offered a reprieve from our former death sentences.

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. My American political background certainly didn't threaten me even though it was possible that my stress around the political climate in the USA may have shortened my life. I left the USA in part because of the degree to which I objected to the policies of my government. I was overwhelmed with a sense of impotency, anger and frustration at their intervention in world politics; at their concentration on murder and mayhem while they also decreed negotiation with other state governments was an impossible consideration.

However, this little treatise is offered in an attempt to inform you of the immense change in the people who came to Australia to escape the very real death sentence of their more totalitarian governments.

Was it possible that Mary could ever tell me, even when she finally had the English words, about her experience in her homeland, the experiences which caused her husband to bring their brood to Australia to escape a certain death in the country of their birth.

Let me begin at the beginning. In March 2002 Michelle invited me to join the volunteers at the Annerley Literacy Centre. Walking in the door, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the need as well as by the lack of organization.

I didn’t pretend to have any ideas about how to organize the classes or the students. However, I knew that if I were going to teach, even on a volunteer basis, I would need to organize myself and my students in some fashion.

Most of all what I didn’t understand at that time was that the refugees and migrants were people who needed more than English skills. They had been through war, attempted annihilation, and the loss of any property they might once have accumulated.

Unlike my own travel agenda, their journey wasn't a holiday. Their arrival in Australia and eventually in Brisbane was a real life game of ‘survival’. Just arriving with their physical selves in tact made each of them a winner. But now, not only did they need to learn English, they needed to learn a whole new culture and the appropriate ways in which to earn a living, to go to school, to cross the street, to buy their food, to dress, to wash, to laugh at Australian jokes. Not only did the adults need to make the crossing themselves, but they needed to model the best possible way for their children to adapt and to keep the sacred practices of their own culture in tact. The pride of being from the Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eratria, or Yugoslavia also had to continue.

Mankind has always been on the move, has always attempted to established herself in new and alien locals, but somehow this journey from hauling water two kilometres in a jug on one’s head to turning a faucet seemed a very long way.

And so we volunteer tutors had not only to teach a new language to people’s whose native tongue we did not understand, but we had the added responsibility of introducing these avid learners to our high tech culture and all that was expected of them here.

And, did Mary survive? You betcha! With a determined mind and a concentrated smile, she read English, not always understanding each of the words she translated onto paper, but she learned her ABCs in written form and read the clock face accurately. She cooked Australian style by boiling potatoes, lamb, and vegetables on the gas stove. She roasted chicken in the oven. She made banana and peanut butter sandwiches on white bread for her children’s lunches, and she walked with Ruth in her perambulator to the literacy centre each week day morning to learn new English words, to drink her morning tea with two tsp's of sugar. And then she walked home to watch the Simpson's at 6 p.m. with her second and third grade children. Furthermore, today she will tell you all of this in perfectly formed English sentences and a bright smile.

She took what the volunteers at the centre offered and in the face of incredible odds she modelled these new behaviours for her children. She provided for all who have worked with her a sense of accomplishment that only her success could offer. Thank you, Mary.

On Thursday there was an addendum to the story of Mary. I was called to come to the literacy centre at 10 because two of the teachers could unexpectedly not attend. I didn’t know with which group I would be working and after I arrived, taking with me materials for all levels, I was placed with the advanced students, which meant the group would include only one refugee, an Iraqi woman who had lived several years in Egypt. The rest of the students were Korean and Japanese. We had a lovely class, introducing ourselves in conversation.
The students were answering questions about being either an A or a B type personality when Nama, Mary’s four year old son, came to play with his sister Ruth near our table. As I asked Nama about his pre-school session, he took my hand and looked carefully at my watch. I suggested that taking it off was easy. He turned my wrist over, figured out how to undo the catch, and stood there with it in his hand. After telling me the time, he put it back on my wrist and buckled it up.

Kook, a 24-year-old Korean student reached out to talk and play with Masa. I was always amazed at the interest the Koreans had in the Sudanese. They often come to homework club in the afternoon to act as tutors for the school aged children. They were kind and playful and never standoffish or judgmental.

Perhaps this is the greatest gift the centre has to offer Australia and the refugees and the student learners; young people from many countries come together to join a celebration.