Volunteer English teachers help Australian refugees overcome social isolation

“My goal is to get her involved in a group of women who are doing something, whether it’s just talking or a craft group so she discovers other people, not just me and her family,” Jenny said. at SBS News.

“It’s really delightful when she actually understands what the word is, you can see the click of the light bulb. And sometimes we even got to prank because she has it.

Volunteers teach English to migrants during social isolation


Jenny joined the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) volunteer tutoring scheme, run by Melbourne Polytechnic, two and a half years ago after spotting a call in the local newspaper.

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

Since then, Jenny has been going to Jeanette’s house, which she shares with her 98-year-old sister and mother, every week to share a meal and a chat.

But recently, due to COVID-19, their classes changed to hour-long WhatsApp calls.

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

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

AMEP’s volunteer tutoring program provides new migrants and refugees with access to informal language lessons on a one-to-one basis outside of the classroom, in addition to 510 hours or formal lessons provided by institutions in across Australia.

In Victoria, 468 volunteers provide these services.

Frances Coppolillo, chief executive of Melbourne Polytechnic.

Source: SBS News


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

With the forced cessation of in-person classes due to COVID-19, the individual program has allowed many people to continue their classes and stay socially connected.

“The fact that weekly meetings could no longer take place would mean that students would not get any service,” she said.

“Often students on the program are quite isolated arriving in Australia without English as a first language, and the coronavirus then compounds that isolation.”

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For Jeanette, the conversations sometimes include essential information like who to call in an emergency, but more often they just cover what she’s thinking.

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

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

“She’s not like a teacher”

National Volunteer Week started on Monday. In an average year, 31% of Australians volunteer, contributing around 743 million hours to the community, but this year has tested their work like never before with droughts, bushfires and COVID-19 .

Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone said: “Volunteers are so valuable to Australian communities and volunteering activities are incredibly diverse.”

“From the arts and education, emergency services, sports, the environment, health, elder care, disability, the list goes on. There is no part of our community that the volunteering does not touch.”

Childcare worker Haneen Shahda is learning English.

Source: Provided


Another student in AMEP’s tutoring program, child care worker Haneen Shahda, said she was grateful to have the support of a volunteer.

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

The 48-year-old Iraqi refugee and her guardian Anne meet up via WhatsApp on Saturdays, but also recently added a midweek call.

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Image to read more article 'Australians are using their forced time at home to learn a new language'

Following the classes, Haneen said she would now be able to complete her degree in childcare.

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

“Now I think I’ll graduate if she stays with me.”

*Name has been changed

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