Sharing the reality of refugee stories

Torrential rain was not enough to deter 50 IEU members keen to hear the real life stories of refugees and share them with their students.

The BOSTES QTC registered Refugee Experiences in the Classroom seminar was held on a stormy Wednesday night in August at the IEU’s Wattle Street Office.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere was enthusiastic and teachers were fascinated to hear the life story of former Iraqi refugee Deena Yako, and some facts and figures from Refugee Council of Australia Manager Effie Mitchell.

This seminar showcases the kind of experience the Refugee Council can bring to your school.

Effie said the council’s aim was to “take the rhetoric” out of refugee stories by sharing one person’s reality.

She said the figures on refugees worldwide were disturbing.

“Half of all refugees in the world are now under 18,” she said.

Deena was born in Kirkuk in northern Iraq to ethnic and religious minority parents.

Her mother is a Syrian Christian and her father a Mandaean (a follower of John the Baptist, neither Muslim nor Christian).

She grew up during the Iran/Iraq war and remembers frequent sirens and running for her life while at school. Two of her uncles were executed for refusing to join the army.

Her father, who was in the army against his will, became a target of authorities and was frequently arrested and tortured, disappearing for months at a time.

Deena said her memories of Iraq are not all bad, she remembers playing in fields of flowers and being part of a loving community.

“My family decided we had to leave Iraq if we were to survive, but me and my brother thought we were going on a holiday. We were excited. I don’t think they told us the truth in case we accidently disclosed information and got us arrested.”

Deena remembers her father telling her to wear warm clothes, and a long overnight taxi journey, and then meeting with people Deena now knows were people smugglers.

Then they were walking through snowy mountains for days, without proper clothing.

“I remember being very sick, and the only way I could have survived was if my mum and dad carried me through the mountains.”

Finally they reached the border and were granted asylum. They spent the next four years in Iran, eight months in a detention centre where Deena was disappointed to be barred from going to school.

The family were accepted by Australia’s humanitarian program when Deena was 13.

“Finally I was allowed to go to school and I was so excited.”

After three month at the Intensive English Centre Deena went to Ashcroft High School in Liverpool.

But things did not go as well as she had hoped.

“There was no support for refugees. I was bullied and discriminated against. No one asked me about my life before Australia.”

Despite not doing well in the HSC, Deena was determined to help young refugees and studied community services, and was chosen as a UNHCR delegate.

Attendee Howard Daddah was curious about what he could bring back from a refugee speaker to his religious education teaching at St Thomas’ Catholic Primary School in Willoughby.

“Her story links well to the teaching we are doing in RE. The things Jesus talked about we are still talking about today but in a different setting.

“I like to bring real life stories back to children and I think I will use the Refugee Council as a resource.”

Penelope Marshall teaches English as an Additional Language at Mary MacKillop Catholic College in Wakeley, so she encounters refugee students.

“I think the refugee story is part of our history and it’s really good to hear real life stories, rather than what you hear in the press,” she said.

The IEU is planning to run more of these seminars next year. The team would like to get your feedback on the kinds of PD you want: email


Sue Osborne