Volunteer rescues refugee language program
Colin Williamson’s generosity has ensured that a University language program to help refugees under threat of being axed will survive and flourish. Jackie Chowns reports.
Each week Colin Williamson, a volunteer conversation-skills tutor, joins a group of students from Sri Lanka, Africa, China, Fiji and Afghanistan who gather at the University to take part in the program, which teaches literacy and creative writing, as well as English conversation and computer skills.
Some come regularly, others take part now and again. Among them are victims of torture and war, some of whom experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
The program has become a support network for the students, Colin says. Many of them have forged new friendships and gained a sense of belonging.
Impetus for the program came from the Tampa crisis of 2001, when more than 400 mostly Afghan asylum seekers were picked up by a Norwegian cargo ship, which was refused entry into Australian waters.
Originally part of the Faculty of Education and Social Work, the program now operates out of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. The teachers and conversation partners are all volunteers. Director Lesley Carnus estimates about 600 people have taken part in the program.
In 2011–12, funding pressures made closure seem imminent. Colin was deeply affected. “The students wouldn’t have anywhere they could go and gather,” he explains.
“We were worried that the program was going to be axed.
So I jumped in and said I would cover the salary [of the program coordinator], and it took away the problem of what the University was saying, that their budgets couldn’t afford it, because all of a sudden that was fixed. It ensured the program would be maintained and wouldn’t die off.
“You get an opportunity to do something and you grab it and do it,” he explains. Colin’s generosity ensured the program’s survival. It has since gone on to attract a further donation from the Pratt Foundation.
Before his retirement as a CEO of a travel company in 2006, Colin was instrumental in pursuing corporate donations to charities such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
But he says to be personally involved with the Refugee Language Program is far more meaningful. “I feel very much a part of the program now because they have adopted me to a degree. It’s a sort of reverse adoption, which is a wonderful thing.”
Colin’s commitment is such that he would join the class on Saturdays after attending one of his thrice-weekly dialysis treatment sessions for kidney disease. “In 2012 I was slowed down a bit because I had to do dialysis on a Saturday morning so I would only get to the class at 12.30 during lunch.”
He takes part in the computer class to give individual support to students, helping some to get email addresses so they can communicate with relatives back home, and assisting others to use Skype. “It gave them a lot of satisfaction to be able to do that,” he says.