WHEN Islington Public School students were preparing for a recent four-day excursion to Canberra, Abdelelah Abaker’s excitement was tempered by anxiety. The 12-year-old had never spent a night away from his parents, Higazya and Mohamed, and they were just as anxious about the trip.
Having arrived in Newcastle in January as part of Australia’s refugee resettlement program, after fleeing conflict-riven Sudan, separation had long been a fear for the family of five. Trapped in limbo in Egypt for 12 years – Abdelelah and his younger brother, Abdelazim, were born there – it had been unthinkable to spend time apart.
School principal Matthew Bradley had tried without success to persuade Abdelelah to attend an overnight camping trip with classmates earlier this year. ‘‘He didn’t know us well enough in term one,’’ Bradley says.
But, when I meet Abdelelah after his return from Canberra, he cannot suppress a wide grin. ‘‘I saw snow,’’ he says, shaping an imaginary snowball is his large hands. ‘‘So freezing!’’
When he arrived for the start of the school year in February, he could not speak or read English and cried when told he would not be joining his older brother, Alaadin, at high school. Bradley recommended he enrol at Islington for one year to learn English and adjust to his new life in Newcastle. ‘‘He wasn’t very happy with me,’’ offers the dynamic, Doc Martens-clad principal in his tidy office.
Mohamed Abaker, whose own studies were cut short by the political unrest in his homeland, nods agreement. ‘‘He cried and cried,’’ the Arabic-speaking father-of-three says through a translator. ‘‘We trusted Mr Bradley. Now, Abdelelah and Abdelazim read for us and say, ‘That’s not right. This is the correct way’,’’ he laughs. Higazya, who sits quietly beside her husband, smiles.
The boys haven’t looked back.
THERE was a time when the reputation of Islington Public School was tainted by its location in a suburb known more for its discarded syringes and sex workers than innovative education. ‘‘I’ve actually been asked if I pick up syringes in the playground,’’ Bradley says, with a hint of exasperation.
In the past five years, Islington has changed. It has the best children’s playground in the city and has become a creative hub. You can browse through antique stores, a textile gallery, have an organic facial, or buy bespoke camping gear – and the coffee’s good, too.
Lisa Ogle, whose two daughters, Edie and Nico, attend the school, describes her evolving suburb as ‘‘bohemian Islington’’, with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek. ‘‘Seriously, though, it has changed,’’ says the long-time resident. ‘‘It wasn’t that long ago that if couples bought a house, they’d sell up and move out of the area before the baby arrived. Now, there are prams everywhere. People used to send their kids to school elsewhere, but that’s changing.’’
She says when nine-year-old Edie, who is severely disabled, was ready for kindergarten, Islington Public School wasn’t on her and partner David’s radar.
‘‘We were planning to send her to the Hunter Orthopedic School in Waratah, but [education] department changes meant it became a senior school and she had to go to Glendon at Hillsborough. It just wasn’t convenient for us, so we met with the local school counsellor, who happened to be based at Islington [Public School], and he explained that Edie could probably go there.
‘‘We didn’t think it was an option.’’
Then principal Andrew Price was all for ‘‘inclusion and integration’’ and modifications were made to accommodate Edie’s wheelchair. She has also been allocated a full-time school learning and support officer.
‘‘We didn’t want her treated like a baby,’’ Ogle says. ‘‘We always wanted her to do age-appropriate, modified activities and it works. She loves school; she gets excited as soon as she sees her uniform and she cries when I pick her up.
‘‘I can’t see it working at a bigger school.’’
Since 2011, enrolments at the 126-year-old primary school have increased by more than a third to 94, although it remains one of Newcastle’s smallest government schools. Forty per cent of the students are from a non-English-speaking background, or a ‘‘culturally and linguistically diverse’’ background, to use current education parlance. It is not uncommon for children to arrive part-way through the year with little understanding of English.
Some have never attended school before and, if they have, their experiences are vastly different to those offered in the lively, art-filled classrooms that greet them at Islington Public School.
Bradley’s focus as a teaching principal centres on the students and their parents.
At the weekly Monday morning ‘‘parent cafe’’, which was introduced last year to provide an informal meeting space for resettled refugees, Bradley listens to concerns. This week, a Hunter representative from the NSW Business Chamber speaks to the group about assisting with work placements. The men are especially desperate.
‘‘I just want to be busy,’’ Alex Mulamba says. ‘‘I have my forklift ticket and I went [to businesses] to get experience. I asked to volunteer, not get money, but everyone said no, it was too risky.’’ He tells Duncan Burck from the chamber that he will happily work as a farm labourer in the Hunter Valley. He has previously been a fruit picker, which is how he saved enough money to buy a small car.
Father-of-eight Clement Saiti previously worked with deaf people and has struggled to find work in this area since arriving in Newcastle. He worries he will have to leave the Hunter and his strong ties with the Congolese community to find a job. ‘‘It is very, very hard,’’ he says.
Talk then turns to the challenges of finding rental homes. Many resettled refugees are rejected by landlords because they do not have a rental history, but there are other reasons including family size and, undoubtedly, ethnicity.
It quickly becomes clear this is no ordinary parent get-together.
As the principal, Bradley is often called on to help. Recently, he dealt with a Glendale business that refused to replace a new appliance bought by a refugee family. It was broken when they switched it on at home. ‘‘The person who served them would not exchange it and comments were made about the family’s race. The family didn’t know what to do.’’
Bradley made a phone call and the business responded more positively.
The parent cafe has become an essential forum for helping to alleviate fear and address issues. ‘‘In some cultures, parents only get involved with the school if their child is in trouble,’’ observes Herbert Gatamah, a community information officer with the Department of Education who helped establish the cafe. ‘‘Here, it is different; parents are encouraged to participate. When Matthew comes into the parent cafe, he is no longer the principal, he is a father, and questions that are asked are often about parenting.
‘‘A few weeks ago, a parent explained their child was demanding an expensive cellphone and they didn’t know what to do. This parent actually had an a-ha moment. It was very visible when Matthew said, ‘I have the same problem, but I do this ...’ The parent saw that the issues they were facing were also affecting other parents.’’
Gatamah explains the trauma experienced by some refugee families makes it difficult for them to trust others.
‘‘They can be anxious, hypervigilant,’’ he says.
Bradley later tells me that during a routine safety drill, a Congolese student crawled under her desk when the hooter sounded.
‘‘Her teacher had to scoop her up and hold for about an hour. She went into this other zone.’’
BRADLEY is a blue-eyed, silvery-haired whirlwind. During my three visits to the school, the only time I see the 36-year-old sit down is during the parent cafe. Our rapid-fire conversations are stop-start as he is called away to speak with a parent, a student, or a colleague. He often starts work at 7am so he can keep on top of the administrative load without interruption. The father-of-three is hard-working, compassionate, and an optimist.
‘‘Matt’s going to change the world,’’ quips the school office manager, Rebecca Bailey.
Originally, Bradley wanted to pursue a music career, but instead completed a bachelor of visual arts at the University of Newcastle. As a classically trained pianist, he releases stress on the occasional Friday afternoon – when all but the cleaner have left the grounds – by playing the school piano. Mozart is a favourite and Liszt remains special. ‘‘But my hands can’t cope any more,’’ he laughs.
This is his first appointment as principal. He has previously worked in Nexus, the child and adolescent mental health inpatient unit at John Hunter Hospital while at the Kotara School, which educates students in years three to six with emotional disturbance and behaviour disorders. He has also been an assistant principal (behaviour) in Lake Macquarie.
‘‘I’ve taught students with some of the most horrendous stories in their background – it would make your toes curl – yet the resilience they have is amazing,’’ he says. ‘‘There is hope for every child with the right support.’’
Small schools are more intense, but their size is also one of their greatest assets.
‘‘The school community doesn’t want it to get too big,’’ offers Bradley, who oversees 15 staff, some of whom service other schools across the region. The school also houses the Reading Recovery unit, a research-based early intervention literacy program that includes three tutors who help train teachers from Wyong to Merriwa. Bradley says it takes six years of formal schooling for a child to obtain the level of English skill required to cope in an academic setting.
‘‘We have kids who have never been to school before they arrive, and some do not have a print literacy background and they’re thrust into a classroom. They have to learn to speak and read, as well as dealing with a new country, customs ... it’s a lot to take in. But my challenges here aren’t ones to do with the kids or community, my challenges are that if we are going to have an inclusive, supportive society, what can we do to achieve that?’’
Given his background in the arts – his partner is artist Sally Bourke – and commitment to engaging students from all walks of life, there is a distinctly creative focus at the school. Year 1 students – aka the Islington Rock Chickens – are working with David Bean, the heavily tattooed father of their classmate Lola, to record a song they have written called Animals on the Chase. When we pop in the children are having their hair and make-up done for the video Bean is filming for them.
‘‘We only live a couple of streets away,’’ Bean says. ‘‘We love the diversity.’’
Lola later tells Bradley of the Animals on the Chase activity: ‘‘It’s just like a normal literacy class only more fun’’.
On Mondays, Senegalese musician Fode Mane teaches each class drumming in the school hall. When I wander in, the kindergarten children are displaying that particular delight that springs from being able to make noise – and lots of it. They are surprisingly precise in following Mane’s energetic lead. ‘‘If they told me to come here and just teach the African kids I’d say ‘no’,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s definitely important to let the refugee children experience some of their culture, but it’s about unifying everyone.’’
There is also a homework club and a dance group. ‘‘My mum always told me,’’ says Bradley, ‘‘that knowledge and skills, while hard to attain, once mastered are easy to carry.’’
WHEN Mohamed Abaker was seated in a plane bound for Sydney and a new life in Newcastle, he was struck by the cultural divide. ‘‘Everyone was Western,’’ he remembers. ‘‘Am I going to feel this way in Australia? I will be different. The children did not worry; they watched movies and played games.’’
The family was met at Sydney Airport by a Navitas caseworker, an Iraqi who spoke Arabic. ‘‘I thought, OK, that’s good. I relaxed,’’ Abaker says.
The biggest challenges since moving to Mayfield in January have been overcoming communication and cultural barriers. His sons, who have quickly attained the ability to read and speak English, are flourishing. This can sometimes create tension.
‘‘Mum and dad are suddenly being dictated to by their kids,’’ observes Bradley. ‘‘The power balance shifts and this creates all sorts of issues. Parents end up relying on their children for help, but, as the saying goes, give an inch and they’ll take a mile.’’
Abaker intends to study law at the University of Newcastle once he completes the Adult Migrant English Program at Hunter TAFE. At 48, he is determined to gain the education he was denied in Sudan.
‘‘You have to settle first, get your house, get an education and look into your future,’’ he says, smiling.
‘‘Maybe there’s a view that we [refugees] don’t know anything, but we have experience and want to contribute. All I want is for my children to finish their education. They won’t have any excuses, because they have opportunity.’’