19 October 2023
Building Community at School, with School Liaison Officer Maria Ha
By Maeve Galea
It’s widely accepted that schools can play an instrumental role in supporting the recovery of children with refugee experience (Kia-Keating & Ellis, 2007; Matthews, 2008; Correa-Velez et al., 2010; Tozer at al, 2018). But did you know that the community atmosphere of a school could also be a healing space for their parents? That’s where Maria Ha comes in. After seven years working as a Community Engagement Officer at the NSW Department of Education, Ha joined STARTTS in 2017 as a School Liaison Officer where she has been facilitating the social inclusion of refugee families in the school community. ‘It’s all about cultivating a strong sense of belonging, connection and community spirit,’ she explains.
Ha believes in a ‘whole-school approach’, and that means acknowledging the challenges facing parents as well as students, ‘they have to come here to a new country, navigate a new school system amongst many other things, while dealing with the language barrier and that sense of starting again’. She explains, ‘this is accumulated with the normal stresses of being a parent and how this new culture impacts the way that they parent their child’. As such school communities should ensure ‘parents feel confident enough seeking help amongst different people within the school rather than assuming all is okay’.
Ha acknowledges that there are challenges to overcome when trying to engage with a person with whom you may not share a cultural or linguistic background. She asserts that ‘it all starts with having an open heart to the lives of others’. For educators and members of a school community it means ‘having an open heart to the families within your schools, being able to listen to them and respecting their dignity as a parent’. She explains, ‘parents are people like anyone else, the need for social connection and being able to feel that you belong as part of a community and not to feel so lonely, or isolated does not go away as you get older’.
As such, Ha acknowledges that we all have a role in fostering community at school but has seen with her own eyes that, ‘as a teacher or educator within the school community you have that huge capacity to empower parents and carers by celebrating their differences and cultivating that sense of cultural safety.’ Sometimes this means ‘listening to what their needs are as a parent and carer’ and other times it means doing your homework and making an extra effort, ‘educators learning new phrases and words in languages or dialects that the parent and carers speak makes a big difference’, she notes. ‘As soon as I greet a community in their own language or dialect you see their faces light up. Then they start sharing things, talking about their culture or asking, “have you tried this particular food?”’ In her opinion by opening the door to have those conversations ‘you develop that trust, that sense of safety and that sense of connection.’
To help parents from families with refugee experiences connect with their school and wider community Ha has facilitated community groups. Currently, she is leading the Community Voice group, which invites parents and guardians with refugee experience to come together once a week and partake in social and cultural activities. She notes that while ‘it’s really about building up their social capital and their capacity to connect with other parents or carers within the group and beyond’ the group also ‘actually makes time and space for them to enjoy a little bit of life each day that is separate from their responsibilities as a mother’. Ha speaks proudly of how the group adapted to an online modality using Zoom during when COVID-19 restrictions required it, ‘there was a lot of fear amongst this group, in terms of using technology’ explains Ha, who chose to use the experience to show the mothers the advantages the online world can have. ‘During one session we used Google Earth to visit places that they miss. We visited beautiful lakes and mountains in Iraq, Syria and Jordan,’ remembers Ha, noting that this is just one example of how sharing our differences can enrich each other’s lives. ‘I was seeing those places for the first time and it was wonderful’ she continues, ‘later we walked them through how to download the Google Earth app on their phones so they can use it with their families.”
Ha’s adoption of the ‘whole-school approach’ (VFST, 2016) deepens and widens the net of inclusion and belonging beyond the students and their teachers to families and the community, ‘It’s all about empowerment,’ explains Ha, ‘whether that be through cultivating a sense of belonging or through education, schools are really unique spaces in that sense’.
Correa-Velez, I., Gifford, S. M., & Barnett, A. G. (2010). Longing to belong: Social inclusion and wellbeing among youth with refugee backgrounds in the first three years in Melbourne, Australia. Social science & medicine, 71(8), 1399-1408. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.07.018
Kia-Keating, M., & Ellis, B. H. (2007). Belonging and connection to school in resettlement: Young refugees, school belonging, and psychosocial adjustment. Clinical child psychology and psychiatry, 12(1), 29-43. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359104507071052
Matthews, J. (2008). Schooling and settlement: Refugee education in Australia. International studies in sociology of education, 18(1), 31-45. DOI:10.1080/09620210802195947
Tozer, M., Khawaja, N. G., & Schweitzer, R. (2018). Protective factors contributing to wellbeing among refugee youth in Australia. Journal of psychologists and counsellors in schools, 28(1), 66-83. https://doi.org/10.1017/jgc.2016.31
Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, et al. School’s in for Refugees: A Whole-school Approach to Supporting Students and Families of Refugee Background. Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture Incorporated., 2016.