While the Australian government turns its back on refugees, this high school opens its doors

15-year-old Syrian refugee Rayaan takes a selfie with her friends and Malala Yousafzai at Holroyd High School. (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

15-year-old Syrian refugee Rayaan takes a selfie with her friends and Malala Yousafzai at Holroyd High School. (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

Holroyd High School in Sydney offers a comprehensive support programme for refugee students who make up 65% of the student population.

“Everyone is different and that’s what makes it so special,” says 15-year-old student Rayaan about why she likes attending Holroyd High School in western Sydney. “You feel normal. You’re accepted as who you are.”

Rayaan is a refugee from Syria — 65% of students at Holroyd High School are refugees and 89% come from a language background other than English. The small public school has been recognised around the country for its comprehensive refugee support programme. In 2018, the Australian Education Awards nominated Holroyd for secondary school of the year.

For all of its accolades, the school’s approach in embracing its student refugee population runs counter to the nation’s policies towards refugees. Since 2013, asylum-seekers and migrants trying to reach Australia by boat are detained in deteriorating facilities on remote islands in the Pacific ocean — an inhumane and potentially illegal policy condemned by human rights groups around the world. Last month, 1,200 migrants sued Australia for  “torture” and “crimes against humanity” experienced at the offshore camps.

But at Holroyd High School, educators focus first on supporting refugee students’ mental health and well-being. Refugee Support Head Teacher Louise Kleinbergs says that because many of their students have experienced trauma, forced marriage and homelessness, the school begins by restoring students’ sense of safety and trust.

“Before students can actively participate and engage in education and develop language skills, they need to have those other things in place,” Louise explains. Holroyd High School offers students counselling and additional therapy classes, like healing through drumming. Once a week, a worker from a migrant resource centre visits the school to offer students and parents help with visas, housing and legal issues.

Malala visits a science class at Holroyd High School. (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

Malala visits a science class at Holroyd High School. (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

The school’s list of after-school programmes is expansive. “There are so many activities: robotics, debating, sports,” Rayaan says. Rayaan and her friends’ favourite activities include volleyball, swimming, cricket and football. Since many students don’t have internet or computers at home, teachers arrange to stay late so students can access school computers.

Through partnerships with local universities — including Western Sydney University, Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales — students learn the different pathways to higher education. According to Louise, 65% of 2018 Holroyd graduates received first round university offers — at Australian schools with students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, the average is approximately 30%. Rayaan hopes to continue with higher education and become a detective when she’s older. She saw one on her favourite Syrian TV show and was drawn to the way detectives solve problems.

Holroyd is one of the few public high schools in Sydney to have an Intensive English Centre. The centre supports new arrivals to Australia who know little to no English. Students spend up to four terms studying English in specialised classes with translators and interpreters. After completing the programme, they transition into mainstream classes.

Coming to Holroyd made me feel like I belong here because there are other people from different cultures, like me.
— Abigail, 14-year-old refugee student from Burundi

Louise, who has been working at Holroyd for 10 years, is amazed by the changes she sees in her refugee students: “I really see over time that their mental health and well-being improves because of the number of support systems at school. There is an increase in their confidence and capabilities. They have stronger connections within themselves and their community.”

“Coming to Holroyd made me feel like I belong here because there are other people from different cultures, like me,” shares 14-year-old Abigail, a refugee from Burundi. Louise credits the Holroyd staff with creating this exceptional learning environment: “The teachers really believe in the value of public education, no matter your background.”


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.