The healing has begun for a group of refugee children in a school in Western Sydney.
The streets of Fairfield in Western Sydney couldn’t be more different from those of the war-ravaged Iraqi city of Mosul. The sky is clear here, the buildings intact. From inside the walls of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Primary School comes the joyous bubble of children’s laughter. It is innocence personified.
Such peacefulness, while common hereabouts, is a rare gift for a group of 28 students at the school. Until last year they had lived a life of fear inside one of the world’s most dangerous and terror-stricken countries, Iraq.
‘The children have come, some of them, from very horrific situations’, says Brother Nicholas Harsas FSP, Principal of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Primary School.
The litany is unbearable: two girls whose mother was killed by Islamic State; a boy whose grandfather was killed; others whose homes and cars have been bombed, sometimes before their eyes; still others whose parents have had to flee because they worked for Caritas Iraq and other Catholic agencies.
Mostly Malachite, Syrian or Chaldean Catholics, these children and their families were part of a group of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees granted asylum by the Australian government in 2016. They had fled Mosul and had travelled via Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey to the western suburbs of Sydney. Under the guidance of the Sydney Catholic Schools Office, and with bursaries from the Catholic Education Foundation, they enrolled in Our Lady of the Rosary.
And here, the healing began.
Less than a year later, Andareena Aja (Year 4) speaks of her love of running and netball. Majd Kdady (Year 1) delights in swimming. Alan Ismael (Year 1) says writing is her favourite classroom activity. Majd Sameer (Year 6), who is determined to be an engineer one day, loves ‘everything: the teachers, the staff, the playground, the classes, the education – everything.’
The toll of war isn’t apparent on these children’s smiling, innocent faces, but their teachers are alert to the upheavals they’ve experienced. Though 98 per cent of the school’s students come from non-English speaking backgrounds, the refugee enrolments have necessitated the implementation of services aimed at addressing issues that pertain specifically to them.
Br Harsas credits his staff with their unfailing commitment to supporting and nurturing these children. Included in the assembled team are specialist language, dialect and new arrivals teachers, a counsellor employed via Catholic Care, an Arabic liaison officer who interprets and translates on behalf of parents, and a religious sister who is also a social worker trained in working with refugees and trauma counselling.
‘We’ve tried to do it very discreetly and subtly, so that the children are not singled out for any particular reason’, says Br Harsas.
‘Some of the students have never been to school before. So you can imagine [them] ….not knowing how to follow instructions, not knowing that all of a sudden they’re part of a class of 32. The teachers have been so wonderful in accepting the invitation and doing tremendous things for the children.’
And while public debate and political rhetoric around the issue of refugees rages, students at Our Lady of the Rosary are striving to model welcoming behaviour for some of the newest refugee arrivals to this country.
‘I tell the children that … it’s up to us to be the face of Christ to these children, to make them welcome, to make them happy’, says Br Harsas.
‘I guess it’s a really good teaching point for us and the teachers, particularly in upper primary where we can talk about the successes we have in our school. And it’s always about that adage, you know, start small, from little things great things grow.
‘If we make a success of it here at Our Lady of the Rosary School, our children will then take that to heart and they’ll go home and share it with their parents and their family members, they’ll share the good news with others, and so it will spread.’
Already the good news is spreading.
A boy who arrived with very little English read the first reading at the school’s packed Christmas Mass last year. A father expressed his gratitude to the school saying, ‘Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. This is all I wanted for my child, and it’s even better than I ever imagined’.
Br Harsas says that the school is merely living out the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
‘I guess when you’re a refugee and you’ve left the peace and safety and familiarity of your home and your faith, and then you find it again in a school community such as Our Lady of the Rosary, it’s a really blessed thing – for him and for us and for this school community.’
View the reflection questions and activities for ‘A place of welcome and peace’ here