Broken Hill visit sheds light on local past

26 November 2012

Dr. Samia Khatun and Bobby Shamrose
Dr. Samia Khatun and local man Bobby Shamrose share the unique history of the Broken Hill Mosque to Year 7 students from Willyama High School.

Researchers from the University of Sydney have helped bring the international history of Broken Hill to life for dozens of regional high school students during a recent field trip.

Led by Associate Professor Michael McDonnell from the Department of History, a delegation of current and recent PhD students including Louise Prowse, Eirini Cox, Dr. Hannah Forsyth and Dr. Samia Khatun travelled over 1100 km to the state's west to host a series of history classes and activities at local high schools.

The week-long visit featured stops at Willyama High School in Broken Hill, where Dr Khatun led a site study of the historic Broken Hill Mosque. One of the oldest mosques in Australia, it was built in the 1880s by the Muslim cameleers who delivered supplies throughout the outback.

With the help of local man Bobby Shamrose, the grandson of Zaidulla Fazulla, the last Mullah of the Mosque, Khatun shared her PhD topic on the little known history of the site with 90 Year 7 students, who put this knowledge to action with a historical treasure hunt.

The University group also visited Broken Hill High School, Menindee Central School, and met with language tutors at St. Therese's Community School in Wilcannia.

McDonnell, who is coordinator of one of the faculty's Social Inclusion and Community Outreach initiatives, said the main purpose of the visit was to collaborate with local high schools to devise a "long-term program that supports teachers and students in their history classes".

"Overall, the trip was amazing - we met with so many inspiring teachers, tutors, and students, and many passionate advocates of both the history of Broken Hill and the Aboriginal communities in the region," he said.

"Along with the work at the schools, a key aim of the visit was to try and put into place a program of activities focused on the history of Broken Hill and nearby Aboriginal communities that will eventually be of mutual benefit to those communities, their schools and teachers, and the University."

As the birthplace of Broken Hill Proprietary Limited (BHP), one of the most powerful mining corporations in Australian history, the region enjoys a rich history of workers' movements and a "pretty extraordinary interconnected and international history", McDonnell said.

"Broken Hill was, and is, an amazingly cosmopolitan place. Migrants from all over the world have made it a home, and this includes many Muslims from all over Asia who came to work as cameleers and who intermarried with the Aboriginal population. And so many local people still have memories and stories of the people who passed through, and those who stayed."

McDonnell's team worked with the Paakantji-speaking community at Wilcannia to discuss how to keep such stories alive, talking about their strategies in reintroducing the language to the regional schools.

"We also spoke about the possibilities of getting their students interested in their own history, and engaging some of the elder members of the community via oral history - but doing so in a way that would be driven by the community and that would benefit the community first and foremost," he said.

McDonnell's colleague in the Department of History, Associate Professor Mark McKenna, held a videoconferencing session on this theme with students two weeks prior to the recent Broken Hill school visit.

Tariq Odegaard, an Aboriginal student from Willyama High School, said he enjoyed McKenna's discussion on how his tribe and others in the region used to live.

"I especially liked when he spoke about no word for drought. We just went to find water. It was our way of life. That was pretty cool," the Year 7 student said.

"I was a bit shaky at first but I decided to be proud of who I am and to share a bit of myself with the others."

The successful Broken Hill trip has helped lay the groundwork for a new unit of study approved by the Department of History, to be introduced to University of Sydney students in 2015. Tentatively named 'History Beyond the Classroom', the unit will allow students undertaking a history major to travel to metropolitan and rural communities to engage with the region's history through work at local museums, on heritage websites or by collecting oral histories. Students might then present their research findings in unconventional ways, including blogs or podcasts.

"Lots of our partner teachers have spoken of the need to get their students out of their local 'bubble'," McDonnell said.

"But we've also found that it is important for us to get our own students out of the 'bubble' that is the University of Sydney. In the long term, we hope the program will help diversify the student body, the kinds of courses we teach, and enrich everyone's experience in the process."

Such innovative courses, in tandem with continued engagement with our regional neighbours, also help challenge some of the 'ivory tower' stereotypes leveled at institutions such as universities, McDonnell added.

"Many of our partner school teachers have commented that it has been so important for their students to see that others outside their communities care about their history, their studies, and that they are taking them seriously."

Ingrid Seck, Head Literacy Teacher at Willyama High School, agreed the visit effectively engaged students not only in new ideas but also on the importance of their high school studies for opening doors to their future careers.

"The visit allowed us to bring Sydney (the big smoke) to them," she said. "For our Year 12 students we wished to expose them to the types of courses available for them to study at the University of Sydney so that they can make informed choices about their career. For our junior classes (Years 7 - 10) we wanted them to understand that what they learn at school is important, will be helpful in furthering their education which in turn will help them achieve their goals and dreams.

"We enjoyed our time with the staff from the University and students gained useful insight and information."

Looking ahead, McDonnell hoped the recent Broken Hill visit would lay the foundations for future initiatives for promoting the history of the region, including the creation of a student-driven and community-owned heritage website.

"I think activities and trips like this also offer opportunities to staff, postgrad students and our undergrad students to step outside their usual comfort zone, and learn about a different world," said McDonnell.

"As two of our volunteers last week noted, they have never got an opportunity to engage with other communities and schools throughout their degrees in such a practical and meaningful way."

The history program has been facilitated by a Widening Participation grant, which includes English, Gender and Cultural Studies, and from next year, Sociology. This project forms part of a wider Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences initiative to diversify and support their student body, and to engage in meaningful ways with low-SES, diverse, regional and remote communities and schools.

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Contact: Emily Jones

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