By Karen Buck
LEITH Maddock has been instrumental in helping Mount Barker’s Afghani refugees flourish. After six years running a program at Mt Barker Community College to help women and children gain vital language, literacy and life skills in their new home town, she heads to Perth to forge a new career. The refugee advocate reflects on her time helping the community flourish with Voice of the South’s Karen Buck in a special feature. Leith is pictured here with three-year-old Sudhaf Haidary and threeyear-old Faisal Arifi during one of her last meetings with the group.
Advocate helps families flourish
IN A a sun-flooded room at Mount Barker Community College, the walls are covered with bright drawings and giant cartoon figures. There’s a steady hum of conversation and the giggling of kids at play, as people come and go. A group of women in colourful headscarves sits in a circle on the ground around plates heaped high with chicken, rice and flatbread. Cups of black tea are handed around and any child who stumbles or gets fractious is immediately soothed by half a dozen pairs of hands. This is a room where flourishing happens, which is due to the vision of social worker and refugee advocate Leith Maddock.
For six years this room has held the hopes and dreams of a regular gathering of Afghani refugee mothers and their children, and now as she prepares to leave the project and head off to Perth to live, Leith is taking stock. “It’s been fantastically successful on every level,” she said of the project, which she began with funding to work with vulnerable families in Mt Barker. “Through my work as a refugee advocate, I knew a lot of Afghani families in the area were not accessing English classes or services.”
“Though every newly arrived migrant is entitled to 500 hours of English lessons there were no classes in Mt Barker. The refugee women couldn’t speak English, couldn’t drive and many didn’t even get out to socialise with one another. “They were a very isolated group – getting by – but it was very hard. There are a lot of very sad stories among these Afghani women – everyone has loss, everyone knows what it’s like to live with trauma. “It just seemed like the time was right to start a group.”
Leith found an Afghani woman to help her and they put together a flyer and drove around Mt Barker to every Afghani they knew. “We told them about the group and said ‘it’s starting next week, do you want to come?’ and they all said ‘yes’,” she explained. “On the actual day we turned up, I didn’t know if anyone would come or not. Everyone did and pretty much since then nearly every Afghani woman in town has come in every week.”
For the first couple of years until many of the women learned to drive, Leith was the ‘taxi wallah’. “It used to take two hours to pick everyone up and two hours to drop them off again in the afternoon,” she recalled. “There were so many young kids and it was kid seats in, kid seats out. I still drive around with three child seats in the car.” What began as a project to help refugees learn English has blossomed into a group where friendships have flourished, new skills have been learned and the refugee women have found confidence.
The English classes, now under the auspices of adult migrant education teacher Karine David, have expanded to two days a week and are soon to go to three. There is also a great deal of hard-slog social work that gets done, with Leith helping the women and their families deal with Centrelink, health and migration issues. The focus on early intervention with the children and helping them transition smoothly from pre-kindy through to school has also had a profoundly positive impact. “The kids think they go to school already,” she said with a laugh. “So when they’re old enough all they do is go into the next classroom and they’re really at school, but it already feels familiar to them.” Another aspect of the program which has worked well has been the decision to have mums and kids in the school together. “The kids can go out and play and do their own thing, but if they ever need their mum, she’s just here,” Leith explained. “It also means the mums get involved with the school, which before they didn’t. And the teachers can come and talk to them here. It’s been invaluable for the school.”
The firm belief that underpins the program and its many small and large success stories is that to support child development you must support the flourishing of the family. “I’ve always had that dual focus, that for kids to flourish the family must flourish,” Leith said. That this group has flourished is perhaps best demonstrated by its acceptance into the Mt Barker community. “They’re very friendly people and I think there’s been a really high rate of acceptance and willingness to get to know each other on both sides in this community,” Leith said. “I think a lot of hostility often comes about because people don’t know people of Muslim background, but when they make an effort to get to know someone, they realise they’re just like us.”
It’s a bittersweet parting for Leith this week, as she prepares to leave her group behind. “I love my mums and I’ve certainly had a lot of love from them,” she said. “But I know the work will continue with the wonderful women who are going to take over and carry it forward. I know this program and these women and their children will continue to flourish. “I’m so very happy about that.”
Within the group that Leith leaves behind are many stories that exemplify the optimism that has grown out of a new start in the Mt Barker community. One of those stories involves Leedah and Hassam. Her family was forced to flee Afghanistan after Leedah’s father was killed by the Taliban and it was no longer safe for them to stay. The family endured some hard years in Pakistan until they were able to come to Australia. Hassam is now a supervisor at one of Mt Barker’s strawberry farms, has established a martial arts school in town and is a volunteer firefighter, and Leedah says she’s made several good friendships with women in town.
Ask her what she likes about living in Mt Barker and her response is heartfelt. “Everything, I love everything,” she enthuses with a broad smile. “I love the safe living, the opportunity for jobs, the weather, the people and the community. Mt Barker people are lovely, they are very good.” Leedah’s motivation to learn English resulted from an incident at school involving her daughter, who arrived home one day in floods of tears. The school had sent a letter home the week before asking for each child to bring a plate to share at an event. “I couldn’t read it and so she went to school without any food,” Leedah said. “She was the only child who did not share and she was so terribly upset. She cried and cried. I felt terrible. I knew I had to learn English then. “I will never forget that time, it will stay with me.”
Perhaps 17-year-old Bakhtawarqurbani, who has been in Mt Barker for only 11 months, best illustrates the enormity of the life change for these refugee families. Her family also fled Afghanistan because it was no longer safe for them. “The Taliban and target killings and bombs blasting everywhere made it unsafe for us,” she said. “We had to sneak out of country.” “We were five years living in Pakistan and it was very hard living. We had no documents, so we were not allowed many things. There was no education, no work, no citizenship or anything like that.” She says living in Mt Barker is very different and she’s quite clear about what she loves the most. “First of all, education and teachers, and friendly girls and boys who talk to us,” she said. “The education is very good and my brother and I go to school. We are safe here and my father got to work. My mum is a housewife.” Bakhtawarqurbani is a quietly spoken young woman with an everready thousand-watt smile, and her dreams are not that big or different from other young Australians. She’s keen to learn to drive and knows just what she wants to do once she leaves school. “My dream is to be a nurse – and also a beautician! I would love that,” she explains. “Those dreams are alright to have here.”