One hundred high school students from eight schools in Sutherland Shire attended an action-packed Refugee and Asylum Seeker Youth Forum on October 20 that used interactive activities and firsthand accounts from recent arrivals from Syria and Kenya to debunk myths about refugees.
The students gained a better understanding of the experiences of refugees and people seeking asylum, and in their school groups identified actions to spread their knowledge and understanding further.
Suggested actions included creating welcome walls in their schools, fundraising for organisations that work with refugees and asylum seekers, and writing to their local MPs.
The Sutherland Shire Refugee and Asylum Seeker Youth Forum was a youth-led program supported by Gymea Community Aid and Information Service, Settlement Services International, Jesuit Refugee Service, St Patrick’s College, Sydney Alliance, and Sutherland Shire Council.
It featured a Q&A with professionals working with refugee and asylum seekers, including Carolina Gottardo, Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, and Marcela Hart from Settlement Services International.
Lucky African Dance performed interactive drumming, Cronulla Sharks players delivered messages of welcome though a video recorded for the event, and Sutherland Shire Mayor Carmelo Pesce spoke about council’s activities as a Refugee Welcome Zone.
Cr Pesce granted a request from the youth leaders for a welcome wall to be painted in Sutherland Shire to promote community diversity and agreed to meet with the youth leaders in December 2017 to discuss how the Refugee Welcome Zone could be strengthened.
Feedback from the schools and students was positive and encouraging. One student said, “I began to see them (refugees and asylum seekers) as individuals with personal stories rather than as a collective group of people.”
Another student said, “The stories haven’t really changed my views on asylum seekers and refugees, however they have strengthened them. I am more educated on these issues and feel more confident when expressing my view. Without reliable information on the topic, we become ignorant to the world around us and therefore make uneducated judgments and insensitive comments.”
The schools reported that the forum “was a great way to address a contemporary issue” and that “it opens young eyes and minds to issues where they can bring about transformative social change through spreading the word”.
Youth leaders will talk to other local councils about delivering similar youth forums in their localities.