What is it like volunteering to help new refugees?

Helping others makes us happy. It also changes people’s lives. Here’s how!

There is one particular moment that Ann Weir remembers had a profound impact on her in her role of volunteer helper at Milpera State High School in Chelmer in Brisbane’s Western suburbs. Weir, 64, from Bardon in Queensland had been correcting the homework of a little refugee boy from the Congo when she read the words that affected her so deeply.

“The task was to talk about what his life was like in his home country. But I just found it so sad reading his story,” says Weir. “He said, ‘in my country if you forget your lunch nobody cares. In my country teachers hit you. In my country people try to kill you,”’ she reflects.

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Ann Weir has volunteered for six years at Milpera

Milpera is no ordinary high school; it’s one of only a few of its kind in Australia. Arriving on any particular morning are students from Sudan, Eritrea, Congo, Ethiopia and many other countries from around the world. It is a striking sight to see such a culturally diverse group in one place, but they are there for a good reason – to learn how to read, write and speak English.

"Some of them when they first arrive at the school don’t even know how to use a pair of scissors. So as you can imagine the teachers need a lot of support"

Many of the kids are refugees who have lived in refugee camps all their lives, while others have ended up in refugee camps after their families fled as a result of civil war or civil strife. They are children whose life experiences up until now have been anything but easy - some have even had traumatic experiences - but now they’re in Australia and hoping for a brighter future.

Weir has volunteered at the school for six years, assisting teachers in class and sometimes working one on one or in small groups to help the students with the English tasks the teachers set. She says her time there has been very rewarding but also very challenging – it highlights how volunteering can be a learning experience for volunteers as well as the recipients of the help.

“When you see the kids develop confidence after a while and begin to ask for help it makes it all worthwhile. But I have had to learn patience", says Weir. “Many of the students are lacking even basic skills. Some of them when they first arrive at the school don’t even know how to use a pair of scissors. So as you can imagine the teachers need a lot of support,” she says.

Weir says another challenge has been adapting to a different kind of learning environment, one especially designed to help students with limited English skills and significantly different cultural backgrounds.

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Milpera high school has a large team of volunteer helpers whose role has always been integral in supporting the students in their learning activities (Photo: Milpera State High School)

“I was used to school environments were you can’t talk or get up and walk around. But at Milpera sometimes the students need to turn around and ask someone for help in their own languages. Some of the students will even start singing out loud in class when they feel like it, which is a really nice cultural difference and one that I never saw in classrooms with Australian born children,” she says.

“Some students have never been in a classroom-like environment or what we would know of as a classroom"

Certainly, for the average Australian used to the luxuries of western life, it would be hard to imagine what it would be like for some of the students at Milpera whose lives have dramatically changed within such a short period of time – many arriving from third world countries rocked by war, disease and famine.

What -is -it -like -helping -refugees -drcongo -flag -rotated -cropped -wyza -com -au (1)Refugee children at Milpera high school come from a wide range of countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Photo: The Suite World)

“Some students have never been in a classroom-like environment or what we would know of as a classroom,” says fellow volunteer, Philip Smith, 67, a retired high school foreign language teacher from Kenmore in Brisbane.

Two things that have impressed Smith in his year and a half as a volunteer at Milpera, are the actual numbers of regular and dedicated volunteers helping out on any given week (approximately 120) and the other is the number of grateful and diligent students.

“Most schools I’ve worked in you usually have to do some coercion of the students to do work but these students are grateful almost to a student. Most of them realise that it’s absolutely imperative that they improve so they’re very grateful,” he says.

Weir and Smith’s volunteering are deeply altruistic acts. They don’t get paid for what they do but do it simply because it’s a worthy cause and because they enjoy it. They are not alone. Many Australians are answering the call from volunteer organisations around the continent looking for ways to use their skills to give something back to their communities.

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Philip Smith says volunteering to help others was always something he wanted to do

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2014 around 5.8 million people or 31 per cent of the population aged 15 years or over participated in voluntary work, which together amounted to 743 million hours of service to the community over the course of a year.

Those volunteers were involved in a wide range of activities from fundraising and sales (23 per cent) to teaching (15 per cent), coaching or refereeing (14 per cent) and food preparation or serving (14 per cent) and these activities were spread broadly across different community organisations including sport and recreation, welfare, religious and health.

An impressive 30 per cent of Australians aged 55-64 volunteered and 35 per cent of those aged 65-74 year old gave freely of their time and skills

The statistics also show different motivations for why Australians decide to volunteer, with the most common answers being that they wanted to help the community (64 per cent) or for personal satisfaction (57 per cent).

In Weir’s case she was inspired by a history of volunteering in her family, including family members who had helped with the Lions Club organisation and others who had served in church communities. She was also looking for a way to use the skills that she had recently acquired in a more enjoyable way.

“I did the training to teach English to adults as a second language but I didn’t like it. It seemed to me we were thrown into the deep end without much assistance and it just wasn’t for me,” she says.

“A lot of the students at Milpera have lived through a lot of trauma, so I just thought that would be a good use of my skills to help people who are settling into our country under those circumstances,” she says.

“I think the more people we have involved in programs like this it would break down some of the scaremongering and racism that some people have in our society"

Smith was intrigued by the Milpera program before he retired and planned to help out once he did. He now volunteers at Milpera one morning a week and thoroughly enjoys it.

“It was always something I wanted to do,” he says. "I think it is an incredibly important thing to do to help these people. It is essential that these new Australians have some reading and writing skills for whatever they’re wanting to do in Australia in the future, whether it’s going on to full schooling for whether they’re wanting to move out into employment. Because without language they really can’t function,” he says.


Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa have caused a surge in refugees arriving on the shores of Southern European nations

Volunteering programs such as Milpera’s can have broader reaching effects on society and can even help social cohesion says Milpera Deputy Principal, Helen Byrne. “The value of having volunteers here is there are more adults to help the children but also society becomes stronger and more cohesive the more people meet people who speak other languages and from other cultures and actively form relationships.” she says.

“The other benefit for the volunteers is that they often form social links and networks. At Milpera volunteers have their own staff area and they quite often become friends outside of volunteering,” she points out.

Weir sees an added benefit of this particular volunteer program as that it helps break down society’s fear of refugees and people from other cultures.

“Sometimes private school kids come to spend a week with the students at Milpera. One of those students was reported as saying to his mum about the kids ‘honestly mum they’re just like us,”’ she says.

“I think the more people we have involved in programs like this it would break down some of the scaremongering and racism that some people have in our society,” says Weir.

4 Top tips for volunteering:

1. Find your passion: Find something that you are passionate about and see how you can lend a hand. Liking what you’re doing will ensure that you will want to keep going back to help out time and again.

2. Match your skills: Think about the skills you might have picked up over the years and try to match skills that you have acquired in a lifetime hobby or a job with a volunteer program to best suit you. It may be that your skills make you a valuable asset to any volunteer organisation needing specific jobs done.

3. Don’t overcommit: Don’t commit to a volunteering timetable that you don’t have time for because you’re too busy. Different volunteer programs have different time requirements and some are flexible, so before you start one find one that suits your lifestyle. But if it turns out you can only spare an hour on Tuesday mornings then some time is better than nothing.

4. Get friends involved: Swap your cake and coffee dates for something more meaningful with friends. Volunteering need not be lonely and can be a great opportunity to socialise with friends who share a common cause. It can also be an opportunity to make new friends and contacts.

To find a volunteering opportunity near you contact Volunteering Australia on 02 6251 4060.

For more information about Milpera State High School’s volunteer program, click here

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