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Tuesday, 22 September 2015 09:36

Language lifeline for women

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sophia centre 150English classes for refugee women have been running for more than 14 years from SOPHIA, an ecumenical, feminist spirituality centre in Adelaide built by the Dominican Sisters, which recently launched a book detailing their students' stories, writes Rebecca DiGirolamo.

Every Wednesday at around 10 o’clock up to 20 migrant, asylum seeker and refugee women meet to learn English in a centre purpose-built by the Dominican Sisters to recognise the experiences of women.

They come from all parts of the world: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and more third world countries.

Many of them have witnessed war and murder and some are victims of rape. They are often mothers with small children trying to find work and identity in a new country but are unable to attend English lessons due to prohibitive child care costs.

“The government does not provide child care for us and so women who have children are stuck at home without English lessons,” said Zahra, a civil engineer from Iran. Under the conditions of her bridging visa she cannot study at university or TAFE and has limited welfare benefits.

Mother of three Anoosha was a registered nurse supervising at a large hospital before she and her family fled Iran by boat to Australia. She too hopes one day to to return to work but needs to gain better English language skills to complete a certified nursing course first.

“They do everything for me at SOPHIA,” she says of the volunteer tutors.

The English classes for refugee women have been running for more than 14 years from SOPHIA, built in 1999 by the Dominican Sisters in Cumberland Park as an ecumenical, feminist spirituality centre honouring women’s experiences, nurturing wisdom and working for justice.

The classes were the initiative of SOPHIA member Ed Paine, who first began teaching English as a Second Language lessons in 2001. At SOPHIA, women can study one on one with a volunteer tutor while their children attend an on-site crèche at no cost – a gift to the women from the Dominican Sisters and the SOPHIA community.

In June, SOPHIA launched a book detailing some of the English students’ stories. Some have had husbands killed by the Taliban, others have lived in refugee camps for up to 15 years, or have married at 14, and some have experienced horrific domestic violence.

Sister Maureen O’Connell OP said the book was am initiative of SOPHIA member Jenny Wightman to give female migrants, asylums seekers and refugees a face and a voice, and for Australians to better understand where these women are from and why they seek asylum in bid to break down damaging stereotypes.

“Without English language skills it is difficult for these women to meet the normal, daily demands of shopping, banking, health care visits and talking to teachers about their children’s education,” said Sr Maureen.

“Often migrant and refugee women are at a disadvantage within Australian society; they face the barriers of culture, language, non-acceptance, misunderstanding and isolation.”

Feature photo shows St Mary’s College students (L-R) Juliane Ciacciarelli and Nicole Zientara helping out at the on-site crèche.

This article by Rebecca DiGirolamo was first published in the September 2015 of The Southern Cross, the official newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.