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Generous donation supports Refugee Language Program


8 February 2013

When news broke that the Refugee Language Program at the University of Sydney was threatened with closure, it struck a chord not just with students and teachers in the program, but with many people in the community.

Since it began in 2004, an estimated 600 people have been through the program, which was started in the aftermath of the Tampa crisis in 2001, when more than 400 mostly Afghan asylum seekers were picked up by a Norwegian cargo ship and refused entry into Australian waters.

Sam Lipski heard the news about the program's possible closure on ABC Radio's PM program and, as CEO of the Pratt Foundation, a private philanthropic organisation, Lipski was in a position to do something about it.

After further investigation and discussions about the RLP with Professor Duncan Ivison, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Lipski and the Pratt Foundation pledged support to the program for three years by donating $150,000.

"When I heard it on the radio it struck home because the learning of language is so essential to making it in Australia. The foundation has had a long association with supporting a range of refugee and asylum seeker programs. Jeanne and Richard Pratt were themselves refugees way back," Mr Lipski said.

"And so we have been involved in many English language programs for immigrants and newcomers as we believe this is an absolutely vital element of integration and acceptance to the wider Australian community."

Each Saturday during semester a group of people from countries including Sri Lanka, Africa, China, Fiji and Afghanistan gather at the University to take part in the program. Assisted by a range of volunteer teachers including qualified English as second language teachers, they learnt creative writing and literacy, as well as conversation and computer skills.

Some come regularly, others now and again. All are on bridging visas while their cases are being processed. Some of the students had suffered torture and had fled war-torn countries, and are suffering social and economic deprivation during waits for visa processing. Others suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

Professor Ivison said the faculty is committed to redeveloping the program over the next three years. The RLP will broaden its teaching and learning options by collaborating with The Writing Hub, which is a program in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences that assists students with academic writing through courses and workshops.

Writing Hub courses are led by professional teachers, but a strand of the program includes student volunteer teachers. It is envisaged, Professor Ivison said, that these students will assist students in the Refugee Language Program improve their academic and professional writing.

"With the three-year funding proposal," he said, "the Pratt Foundation has agreed to help us evaluate what the Refugee Language Program does well and what it could do better, and hopefully we will be able to link it to our academic writing hub, so we will have this terrific program that involves students helping students."

"This is a chance to extend the Writing Hub program to another group and it also will give students a chance to engage with refugees and asylum seekers - a community that they may not have a lot of opportunity to meet."

Professor Ivison said there was much enthusiasm in the faculty, and with friends of the faculty, to keep the program going.

"Our friends recognised that this was a valuable program, and we were able to work together to come up with a solution."

One of those friends - retired CEO Colin Williamson - had rescued the program from closure by donating to pay for the salary of Lesley Carnus, the part-time course co-ordinator.

Through his role as a conversation volunteer in the program over two-year years, Mr Williamson had heard many of the students' turbulent histories and he was saddened by the possible closure.

The Refugee Language Program had not only assisted with their English-language skills, he said, but it had become a support network for the students too, many of who forged new friendships and gained a sense of belonging by attending each week.

"So I jumped in and said I would cover Lesley's salary, and it took away the immediate problem. It ensured the program would be maintained and wouldn't die off," Mr Williamson said, before adding, "You get an opportunity to do something and you grab it and do it."

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Contact: Jacqueline Chowns

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