October 03, 2014 | the age
Twenty adolescent boys and girls cram in one room of a house in West Java, singing and gesturing in delightfully accented English a song made famous by a giant purple dinosaur.
“With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too?” they sing and point, embracing Barney the Dinosaur’s signature tune with the same enthusiasm of the generation of children before them.
This is the English class at the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre and the mainly ethnic Hazara children attending could not be happier to be here.
A child at the asylum seekers’ new “learning centre”. Photo: Michael Bachelard
In what would be the lounge if this was a family home, the littlies are having their faces painted with English words such as “Excellent”, while others play word games with their young teacher and recite, with enthusiasm, Ring a-ring a-rosie.
In a third tiny room, the older teenagers take a rather more serious approach to their lesson, even though it’s standing room only.
Just two months ago, these children were bored and aimless, dislocated from their home countries and stuck in temporary accommodation as their school years ebbed.
Children at an asylum seeker learning centre in Cisarua, Indonesia. Photo: Michael Bachelard
A year before that they might have been preparing with their parents to attempt the perilous boat voyage from Indonesia to Australia, fleeing the sometimes deadly dangers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
But Operation Sovereign Borders has stopped that traffic in boats,and now hundreds of children are among the 10,000 people marooned indefinitely in Indonesia while their asylum claims wend their way through the United Nations process towards an uncertain end.
Foreign children cannot attend Indonesian schools but, rather than give in to hopelessness and frustration, a group of four Hazara men pushed to open this learning centre in early August.
A class at the learning centre in Cisarua. Photo: Michael Bachelard
One of them, Khadim Dai, is only 18 and wise beyond his years.
“Before, Indonesia was just a transit for asylum seekers. Now we must live here for three or four or five years, so we must educate our children. It’s as simple as that,” Khadim says.
The community expressed its interest a while ago but renting the house led to an explosion in applications. Fifty-five students and seven teachers now come to what the founders are careful to avoid calling a school (because it is not certified by the Indonesian government). They range in age from about five to 17 and attend for three hours a day, four days a week, to learn English, maths and “general knowledge”, or basic science.
Welcome distraction: Children learning English at the centre. Photo: Michael Bachelard
Classes in English for adult women are also held twice a week, so that, if they’re lucky enough to win one of the few thousand refugee places in Australia or New Zealand, they’ll be prepared.
An Australian donor has paid the rent to start with and donors have supplied piles of textbooks in English. The asylum seeker community kicked in to buy some basic equipment – a whiteboard and some markers. Even so, space is tight and the students sit on the floor or stand – partly because they have no chairs. Another 20 children are on the waiting list because they simply cannot fit into the building.
Despite its shortcomings, teachers and students here are both clear on the value of this project.
The learning centre aims to keep children occupied and prepare them for a possible life in an English-speaking country. Photo: Michael Bachelard
“Sitting at home wasting your time is not good and you will be depressed,” says 17-year-old Maliha Ali in almost flawless English, “so that is why I am coming here – to utilise my time and utilise the students’ time and teach them something that I know”.
Maliha was still a student herself in Pakistan when her family fled a Taliban death threat to her father, Liaquat Ali Changezi. She didn’t have a chance to graduate but now she is the “teacher” of the middle level class.
Her little brother, Fazil Aqil, 12, agrees that, “when we were free [to do nothing], the bad thoughts come in our mind”.
All smiles: A young boy at the learning centre. Photo: Michael Bachelard
“Now it is good that we have a school and three hours we are busy with our school.”
Both children would say that – they are the offspring of Changezi, the learning centre’s co-founder and “principal”, who was a well known local Hazara TV actor in Quetta, Pakistan, before he says he was forced to flee. Ask Changezi about the learning centre and he does not celebrate his achievement so much as worry about its inadequacy.
Some students have much more English than others and it’s hard for the teachers to manage, he says.
“We need a bigger space … we have classes one, two and three,but the students belong in different age groups and different classes … it’s very hard for the teachers.”
Changezi also wants to find chairs, a computer and printer, and some training for the volunteer teachers.
“I want to start a full service but we can’t do it right now.”
Khadim says a collateral benefit of the learning centre has been improved communications with the local Indonesian community. Relations between the thousands of asylum seekers who live in the hilltop town of Cisarua and the locals have not always been happy and stories of threatened violence and distrust are easy to find. But the Indonesian community leader for this area, known as the “RT,” cut the ribbon to open the learning centre, and Indonesian children who want to learn English (and don’t mind their new friends speaking Hazaragi in the playground) have been invited to attend.
“We are a guest here, so we want to know about Indonesian culture and respect them,” Khadim says.
It’s a small start towards some high-minded aims. But the children in this school know that anything’s better than sitting around doing nothing.