19 December 2012

A group of young Afghan refugees has taken a step closer to reuniting with their families with the help of law students from the UQ Pro Bono Centre.

During 2012, law students Ellen Bevan, Balawyn Jones and Alice Pinkerton (and law graduate Kate Stacey) have, with the aid of interpreters, assisted more than 25 unaccompanied minors at Milpera State High School to complete visa applications as the first stage in a process to bring their families out of conflict and into safety in Australia.

Program supervisor, Dr Peter Billings, said the teenage Hazara boys were forced to leave Afghanistan without their families as a result of a well-founded fear of persecution, and had undergone an arduous journey to secure lasting protection and safety in Australia.

Milpera State High School in Chelmer is a special purpose school that teaches English language learning and provides settlement services to newly-arrived young immigrants and refugees to prepare them for living and studying in Australia.

ESL/Home Liaison Officer Sue Shepherd from Milpera SHS said that help with the necessary DIAC paperwork had removed significant emotional stress and given the boys hope, enabling them to focus on their school and English studies.

“These students have fled persecution in their own country and had a traumatic and horrific journey by mainly unseaworthy vessels from Indonesia to Christmas Island,” Ms Shepherd said.

“Their mothers are at risk and many of their fathers have been killed, mostly by the Taliban, so the number one thing they want to do here is put in their family reunification form to bring their families out; they don’t even put themselves in the equation.”

“Our mission at Milpera is to engage students in the learning/acquiring of the English language and in our environment there are many emotional and social challenges that do not allow many of our students to engage effectively.

“Stressing about who, and how, they will start and also complete the paperwork required for family reunification, is one of the emotional factors.”

Ms Shepherd says that since the UQ project began there has been an increase in motivation, wellbeing and attentiveness to learning and an improvement in the boys’ English skills.

“Their increased engagement has allowed some to advance up levels and to exit Milpera into other suitable contexts,” she said.

“I am sure their families back home would also like to thank the girls as they, hopefully, will also be the recipients of their unselfish generosity.”

The students were assisted in their work by support teacher and interpreter with the Home of Expressive Arts in Learning (HEAL), Abdul Ibrahimi, a Hazara refugee who arrived in Australia by boat twelve years ago.

Abdul said he was impressed by the appropriate balance of professionalism and kindness shown by the law students.

“I was overwhelmed by the girls’ generosity and their sensitivity to the harrowing stories that the boys had to tell for inclusion in their visa applications,” Mr Ibrahimi said.

“They had to reveal dark parts of their lives that often included slayings, extreme violence and torture.”

Although they cannot be named for legal reasons, some of the Milpera SHS students have described the significance of the law students’ support.

"This is so important to us - you would never understand unless you have made a journey for your family. I was scared of waiting so long but now we have such good help from the UQ students."

“I can really learn English now. My head is clear and I am going to spend all my time learning so that I can teach my family when they come.

“I feel much better. It is difficult thinking of my family but now I feel like I am helping."

The Milpera outreach work is an initiative of the UQ Pro Bono Centre’s Asylum and Refugee Law Project (ARLP).

The ARLP activities include a community education program designed to promote a critical understanding and awareness of the socio-legal complexities of forced migration, refugee law and asylum seeker policy among high school students.

High school teachers are encouraged to contact Dr Billings if they wish the ARLP to visit their school.

Media: Dr Peter Billings 07 3365 7176, p.billings@law.uq.edu.au or Melissa Reynolds 07 3365 2523, m.reynolds@law.uq.edu.au