May 21, 2013
COMMUNITY SPIRIT: Students at St Helena’s Catholic Primary School have been writing letters to children in a detention centre on Manus Island. They recently received friendship bracelets back. Pictured left to right: Jaydan Tartaglia, 8, Jonathan Tartaglia, 11, Calixia Lobo, 12 and Denzel Lobo, 8. Source: PerthNow
WA primary schools are being encouraged to raise debate about asylum seekers in the classroom to combat racist stereotypes from an early age.
It comes after an Ellenbrook primary school’s students wrote to children at the Manus Island detention centre to tell them they were welcome in Australia. Students even drew up pretend “visas” for them.
Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner Allan MacDonald said students needed to know the facts about asylum seekers “unembellished by people’s opinions”.
“One way you can get around misconceptions about asylum seekers and refugees is to educate children about them before they come under the influence of the wider opinions that are out there in the community,” he said.
“If they are old enough to learn about Aboriginal people and their history they should also be old enough to comprehend the way that Australia has been, certainly since World War II, very much a country of migration and a lot of those migrants came because they were fleeing oppression and poverty and war.”
He praised St Helena’s Catholic Primary School in Ellenbrook for the initiative.
The school’s assistant principal Luke Sirolli said it was important to break down the stereotypes of asylum seekers. “There’s a lot of ignorance in society about people who are travelling from other countries,” he said.
“It’s important that children understand the reasons why people are coming and the reasons for it and let them form their own judgments about it rather than just listen to media outlets or other people.”
Five months after the students reached out to Manus Island they got a letter thanking them and received hand-woven friendship bracelets from detainees.
“There are children in detention and it’s important for them to know that we want them here and we support them and we hope they can come into our community soon,” Mr Sirolli said. “The line in one of the letters we got back,
‘It’s great to know we might have friends outside of here’, so that was pretty cool.”
Calixia Lobo, 12, now a Year 7 student at nearby Holy Cross College, said she felt many people were against asylum seekers because they never learnt about them in school.
Refugee Rights Action Network spokeswoman Sarah Ross said early education was the key to overcoming racial prejudice in society.