Translated by laughter

Imagine being faced with a class who speak no English, share no common language or culture or know the European alphabet. Some can’t even read or write their own language.

It sounds daunting, but in fact it’s great fun. Kirsten Beletich is among a group of 10 volunteer teachers and support staff from St Francis Xavier’s College Hamilton, Newcastle that help out at a community group for recently arrived refugees.

The Refugee Hub is run by the Catholic Diocese of Newcastle-Maitland Development and Relief Agency (DARA).

Families from the Sudan, Congo, Afghanistan, Tibet, Syria and other countries gather each week to improve their English in an informal setting. Many of the refugees access formal English classes, but the group gives them a chance to practice conversation.

Beletich said the group often finds common ground through humour. For instance, practicing naming clothing items quickly turned into a hilarious fashion show.

“They are so used to miming they have some fun with things. There are some larrikins in the group. They were doing catwalks wearing silly hats and things like that.

“After we’ve volunteered, we often swap text about the funny things that have happened.”

English and Studies of Religion Teacher Kirsten said meeting people from troubled backgrounds who see the funny side of life puts her own problems into perspective.

Volunteering for the group is also a helpful reminder for her own teaching practice.

“It reminds you not every student is an academic and that there are many ways of teaching and learning.

You think about how you need to get down and among it with the kids, how you need to connect before any of the other learning can happen. It emphasises the human side.

The group currently meets at a room at CatholicCare premises but has been given a grant for their own building.

‘When they get their own place, we will involve students from the school in the group. They can help prepare food, put together donations and occupy the smaller children with simple games and puzzles.

“We’ll have community barbecues at the end of each session.”

Newcastle Labor MP Tim Crakanthorp acknowledged the work of the St Francis Xavier’s volunteers in State Parliament on 4 June.

“Ms [Clare] Murphy and Kirsten Beletich are two of 10 teachers from St Francis Xavier’s College who have volunteered to help break down language barriers for refugees and to acclimatise new arrivals to Australia’s more idiosyncratic cultural nuances,” Mr Crakanthorp said.

“The classes these teachers offer do more than teach a language; they build a community. They are vital to assist refugees orientate themselves with the Australian way of life, develop their confidence and abilities and give back to their new home. Well done!”

Some school aged refugees still use nappies due to post traumatic stress syndrome.

DARA is collecting nappies for distribution. If you can help, contact DARA’s Refugee Hub on (02) 4979 1142 or email

Sue Osborne