Refugees often arrive in Australia with nothing - including no friends, family or the language skills they need to find work and accommodation. The Refugee Language Program helps refugees learn English and build social networks in the Australian community they now call home.
When Krishnan arrived in Sydney as a refugee in 2014, he had nothing and knew no-one. He couldn’t speak English and he had no understanding of what it meant to live in Australian society.
He had also left behind his wife and his two teenage children. As he struggled with his isolation and distress, his refugee case worker suggested the University’s Refugee Language Program.
Since it started, this free, donor-supported program has helped hundreds of refugees like Krishnan, as they work to establish themselves in Australia. For many, it gives them their first sense of stability and progress since fleeing their home countries. Krishnan himself had been forced to flee Sri Lanka.
After a brutal, 26 year civil war that ended in 2009, the country is now in a period of relative peace, but humanitarian organisations like Amnesty International point to continuing human rights abuses including torture and illegal detention, carried out with impunity. Krishnan was a victim of these abuses.
As a member of the minority Tamil community, Krishnan was an activist calling on the government to repeal oppressive, anti-Tamil laws. Though he was never part of the resistance group known as the Tamil Tigers, Krishnan was harassed, threatened and brutalised by the police.
Worse still, his family received death threats. Rather than bring danger to the people he loved, and feeling strongly that his own life was under threat, Krishnan fled Sri Lanka.
The Krishnan who arrived in Sydney, is a very different person today. Ian Brownlie volunteers his time as a mentor with the Refugee Language Program. He and Krishnan meet regularly so Ian can help Krishnan speak more conversationally and understand Australian culture. Ian also helps navigate challenges like renting accommodation and dealing with government departments.
His guidance of Krishnan has evolved into a friendship, “From my observations, a lot of refugees are battered mentally, psychologically, emotionally,” he says thoughtfully. “I think Krishnan has been all those things, but he’s worked hard to adapt and to provide his own living.”
Making refugees job-ready is a major focus of the program, and the English classes are a stepping stone to building friendships and networks. Sitting in a meeting room at the Language Centre, Krishnan still speaks English carefully, but he is working hard to improve, “I asked Ian to teach more conversation, because when I work I want to be able to talk to customers.”
The customers Krishnan mentions are part of his effort to start his own business. To earn a Safe Haven Employment Visa, he must open a business in regional Australia, and he’s looking at setting up a Sri Lankan catering business in the Southern Highlands. Before that, and with a fulltime job working in a factory, he’s trying out his food ideas in Sydney.
“His food is excellent,” says Brownlie who has helped Krishnan investigate his Southern Highlands idea. “He's a regular at the Saturday night markets in Marrickville, where he sells out early, and orders are picking up.”
As Krishnan works for his visa and to create his business, he also dreams of the day when his family can join him in Australia for a new life of security and opportunities.
Krishnan’s story is one of hundreds where the Refugee Language Program has helped people get their start in Australia, which makes Brownlie proud to be a volunteer mentor.
“I think the program is incredibly important,” he says simply. “Formal organisations can’t do what the program does, because it’s not just about learning the language, it’s about committed people creating a personal connection between the new arrival and the adopted country.”
The program relies on its volunteers, but it can’t continue without donor support that pays for textbooks and activities where refugees can learn about Australia and what it means to be Australian.
Brownlie feels he also gets a lot out of the program and from knowing Krishnan, “For me, it’s inspiring that someone can do this with such fortitude, remaining so positive throughout.”