There is a New Student folder in my pigeonhole. I flip it open and scan the enrolment form. From her listed date of arrival, Kafa* has been in Australia for less than two months. She has come from Ethiopia, speaks Oromo and lives with her aunt. She is 15. Years of schooling: two. Country of schooling: Ethiopia. Date last attended school: 2009. Interruption to schooling: approximately six years. Orphan child visa: 117 – “for a child whose parents are dead, permanently incapacitated or of unknown whereabouts”. It’s the middle of the term and Kafa is my third new student in a fortnight. So it goes.
Students at the Collingwood English Language School in Melbourne come from all over the world. There are hijabs, and Samoan tattoos, and prayer mats laid out at break times. Lunch boxes are filled with biryani, okra, steamed rice cakes, goat, noodles, dolma, falafel, dumplings, and rice, rice, rice. In the classroom, voices rise and dip at strange intervals, to convey meanings understood only by those in the same language group. We hear one another like different breeds of birds – consonants bumping, rolling r’s, swallowed vowels, throaty h’s and guttural g’s – and everyone gets by.
At recess, the basketball court is alive with leaping, running kids: Zaareb the six-foot-six Sudanese boy; Ishaan the lithe, fast-talking Indian who slaps his hand over his mouth for calling out the answers too often in class; Chati from Thailand, with his froth of black hair, glasses falling down his nose and a perpetual apologetic giggle.
Huddles of Ethiopian and Somali girls in brightly coloured headscarves and full-length skirts call out, “Hello, Miss Inky! Hello!” Chinese, Syrian and Kenyan boys dash side to side and leap up to take a shot at the basketball hoop. Vietnamese, Iranian and Iraqi girls split into teams and take sides for volleyball. “Here!” “To me!” “Yes!” Language is no obstacle to the games. The few Italian and Greek boys with their cool haircuts and white zippered pants are whippets at soccer and return to class running their forearms over their foreheads and plucking their tops away from their overheated bodies. “Fan, per favore, Miss Inky? Fan? Hot, Miss!”
Hien, one of the multicultural education aides, brings Kafa into the classroom.
“New student,” says Hien, her hand lightly on Kafa’s shoulder. Kafa looks up from the sandals peeking out from her burnt-orange skirt to take in the students sitting at desks behind me.
“Yes!” I say. “Welcome … Kafa, yes? Good to meet you.”
I offer my hand. She gives me her own and dips her head in greeting. Her face is framed by a blazing purple hijab. Tadesse pulls a chair from against the wall and Kafa sits.
“How do you say ‘hello’ in Oromo?” I ask Tadesse.
“Akkam,” I say, and the Oromo speakers in the room fall about laughing. I say it again and they crack up even more. We take turns introducing ourselves to Kafa – name, country, language and something we love. I say, “I love chocolate,” and Tadesse says, “I love injera.”
“What is injera?” I ask. Zena and Sisay look wide-eyed at me, jaws dropped in disbelief.
“What?” I say. “I don’t know it.”
“Injera, Miss Inky!” Sisay rummages in her bag and pulls out a kind of spongy flatbread. “Injera,” she repeats, handing it to me. “Try! Is good!”
Holding the bread an inch from my lips, I look to Tadesse. He takes in a quick suck of air and tosses his head, Oromo for yes. The bread is good and I thank Sisay. Kafa has a tic of a smile on her lips.
This week the students in my home group are learning how to express likes and dislikes. Images of the cities, mountains, lakes and foods from their home countries are projected onto a screen, one at a time. Prompted by these, students call out single words or short phrases. By the end of the session, they are using simple sentences: “I like the shops in Addis Ababa.” “I love my friends in Somalia.” “I don’t like the traffic in Hanoi.” “I hate the fighting in my country.” Kafa watches and listens. When the bell goes for recess, Sisay hooks her arm into Kafa’s and leads her out into the schoolyard.
On yard duty, arms clutched across my chest, I tell a group of girls I’m freezing. Amina, who is tiny, reaches up and takes the scarf from around my neck, throws it over my head, and whips it into an elaborate hijab arrangement the same as all of theirs. The girls beam with delight. “Aah, look beautiful, Miss!”
“I’m warm!” I say. Basem from Sudan looks over as he passes by. “Look good, Miss Inky,” he says coyly.
At our school, students come when they come and stay for two to four terms, depending on their visas. Many students have come as refugees and have experienced war firsthand; they live with the shadow of horrific memories and ongoing anxiety for family members who are unreachable and remain in danger. Language school gives students a safe landing pad, a place in which they feel welcome. A place where they can process the overwhelming departure from their countries of origin, their culture and their people. A place where they can put the pieces back together. At the end of every term, exiting students are released into the big wide world of mainstream high schools in all directions, or higher education, or vocational training, or other destinies yet to be determined. Research says it takes seven years to learn a language. We don’t have seven years.
When the bell rings at the end of the school day, students pack up their bags and stack their chairs. I approach Kafa. “Are you OK?” I ask. She smiles and nods, re-pins her headscarf.
* Names have been changed.
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