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Celebrating Diversity & Service in Volunteer Week: Migrants giving back to support those on same settlement journey

By Emma Prineas | May 16, 2024

This year’s Volunteer Week, themed “Something for Everyone”, shines a light on the remarkable stories of migrants like Shereen, whose volunteer efforts highlight the positive impact of giving back, on both local communities and volunteers themselves.

Shereen, originally from Egypt, came to Australia in May 2006 with her partner, and settled in Western Sydney. While in Egypt, Shereen had studied English for a number of years, culminating in a Bachelor of Arts in the English language. “When I came here I got busy to establish my family for nearly 12 years and during that time I was just working as a community language teacher in Saturday schools and I had no idea about how I could use my bachelor degree to work in Australia,” Shereen said.

After going through the challenging process of starting over, Shereen sought to use the knowledge of her own experience to support other migrants on the same journey. She joined Navitas Skilled Futures as a volunteer tutor, as part of the Volunteer Tutor Scheme (VTS) within the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP). The AMEP is an Australian Government funded program to help eligible migrants and humanitarian entrants improve their English language skills and settle into Australia. The VTS offers one-on-one assistance to AMEP participants to support their English learning.  Individuals from all walks of life are able to volunteer their time to the scheme.

“Coming to Australia, I saw a chance to redefine my role within this new community. My journey began with teaching English to speakers of other languages, particularly helping those who faced significant barriers such as language differences.”

Shereen, on her experience supporting students through the VTS

As a Volunteer Tutor, the challenges Shereen’s students faced were profound, from learning the basics of the English alphabet to understanding how to access settlement support within their community.  “They had no idea, nothing. Even something as simple as the pronoun ‘it’ was a new learning curve,” she said.

Most of the students that Shereen was supporting with volunteering had arrived in Australia as refugees from Syria, escaping the civil war that has seen violence and destruction displace over 16 million people, with over 6.5 million recognised refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.  In 2017, the Western Sydney LGA of Fairfield embraced a reported 6000 refugees in a special intake from Syria and Iraq, and a large number of these individuals commenced studying English via the AMEP. For Shereen, a shared understanding combined with strong English skills and bilingual abilities in Arabic meant that she was able to provide a strong level of support for a number of students. Over a period of six months, Shereen supported eight students – a phenomenal gift of gratitude to the community that embraced her.

“One of my most memorable experiences was witnessing the joy of an elderly Vietnamese refugee who received her first certificate for passing a language test. It was an incredibly happy and fulfilling moment for both of us.”

Shereen, on the importance of volunteer tutors extending far beyond learning English

Following her positive tutoring role, Shereen later decided to become a qualified TESOL teacher in Australia, and secured an AMEP trainer position with Navitas Skilled Futures, where she now guides students through their learning processes, significantly enhancing their ability to integrate into Australian society.

“Our role as trainers is very important in our students’ lives as they see Australia through us. And they feel assured when they see trainers from their same background.” Shereen said of her current role.

Today, Shereen continues to advocate for greater awareness and participation in volunteering. “Many people have potential and skills but aren’t aware of how they can contribute. It’s important to spread the word, especially among migrants who can make such a significant impact,” she said.

Two woman sitting at a desk, working on a laptop together

As Australia celebrates Volunteer Week, Shereen’s story is twofold. Firstly, it showcases the enormous, volunteer contribution that refugees and migrants provide to their communities. As individuals with a common bond of displacement or even international movement, the support from a member of the community who has a shared experience of settlement, is invaluable in terms of understanding and social cohesion. All over the country, migrants and refugees are volunteering to support their communities in myriad ways; from providing meals, to mental health support, and language learning. Shereen’s story serves as a great example of the crucial role that migrants play in enriching and supporting their communities, showing that sometimes, the best way to find your place in a new home is to help others find theirs. 

Secondly, it celebrates this year’s Volunteer Week theme, “Something for Everyone”. Shereen, arriving to Australian shores with little more than her bags, brought in her pocket a drive to support others, and a love of learning. Armed with only these, she was able to use her skills to support others who had faced similar circumstances. It’s a testament to how every one of us has something to offer others through volunteering. And in return? Volunteering offered her community, confidence and a career.

It’s a compelling reminder that volunteering truly has “Something for Everyone”, encouraging Australians old and new to participate and make a difference.

About the Volunteer Tutor Scheme:

The Volunteer Tutor Scheme encourages people to support adult migrants and humanitarian entrants in the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), helping them develop their English skills and settle into life in Australia. The VTS is a part of the AMEP, a program available nationally and funded by the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs. 

About Volunteer Week: 

Volunteer Week is an annual celebration that highlights the contributions of volunteers in Australia. It promotes the benefits of volunteering, both for individuals and for society as a whole.

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