Council helps asylum seekers become life guards

Wednesday, 11 July 2018 

Inner West Council and Royal Life Saving Society of NSW are partnering to train newly arrived asylum seekers as life guards.

The life guard training initiative is the latest expansion of the Refugee Welcome Centre initiated by Inner West Mayor Darcy Byrne in 2016.

In February, a learn to swim program for refugee families from the Centre commenced at Leichhardt Park Aquatic Centre (LPAC).

The Royal Life Saving Society of NSW agreed to support the program by providing training for participants.

Now, three female Welcome Centre participants are in the process of becoming qualified life guards.

Sophie, 27, is from Syria. She left her war-torn country for Lebanon before successfully applying for asylum in Australia. She says her family was comparatively lucky, “We are here now. It took a year,” she said.

She found out about the training at Settlement Services International (SSI) orientation at the Welcome Centre. As a keen swimmer, she was instantly interested.

“I like swimming. I come here with my Mum and my grandmum. We know how to swim. [In Syria] we have pools. We have sea, but it is far from where we live. We travel four or five hours to go the sea. We would go there sometimes in the summer. So mostly I swam in pools.

“I wish to work as a lifeguard. I would like to work here [LPAC]. Because I like swimming, it’s nice to work in something you love. [My refugee experience means] I can add to the experience,” Sophie said.

*Nina is 54 and from Iran. Her journey to Australia was not as smooth sailing as Sophie’s. “I came by boat. And I was 19 months in different detention centres. Everywhere – Christmas Island, Brisbane, Darwin, Perth. It was bad.”

Nina also heard about, and was very interested in, the LPAC program while attending the Refugee Welcome Centre. “Because I like swimming,” Nina said. “When I was 20 I learnt swimming, and at my house I had a swimming pool. And I love swimming. I wanted to know more about swimming. I want to become a life guard, to help people.”

*Ellie, 37, has had the toughest journey of the three. She was in Indonesia for two years before arriving on Christmas Island, and was the first family transferred to Nauru.

“I am here now, and I’m happy to be here after a terrible journey,” she said.

That terrible journey included a boating accident with other refugees in which Ellie, an excellent swimmer, helped 50 people to shore, including her own four year old son.

After, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and developed a debilitating fear of water.

Her doctor suggested swimming lessons as therapy.

“This pool [LPAC] is very safe and comfortable for me. Now I can swim in the water. That took six months – not the deep end!

“Every day is better than yesterday. I tried another swimming pool and the ocean also and I’ve been to a psychologist, and that has all helped me,” Ellie said.

Does she think that overcoming her phobia could make her capable of helping others who have a fear of water?

“Yes,” she said. “I want to do that.”

Inner West Mayor Darcy Byrne said this life guard training is a powerful example of the practical difference the Refugee Welcome Centre is making in people’s lives.

“Many of the families at the Centre are from Iran, Iraq and Syria. Having escaped war and oppression to make it to Australia, we want them and their kids to learn to swim and safely enjoy the beach and pool like all Aussie kids should,” he said.

“To see clients from the centre now training life guards and potentially saving the lives of Australian kids shows what a meaningful contribution refugees make to Australia.

“Some politicians are obsessed with rhetoric about boats but these trainee lifeguards are stepping up keep Aussie kids safe in the water.

“We will continue to expand the Welcome Centre so that more and more people from refugee backgrounds can become part of our Inner West community.”

The Callan Park Refugee Welcome Centre, which provides humanitarian services and wellbeing activities for newly arrived refugees, was established by the former Leichhardt Council in 2016.

The Refugee Welcome Centre is a partnership between Inner West Council, Settlement Services International and the Justice of the Peace Office of the Catholic Diocese of Sydney.

“The Welcome Centre is a great example of how Council is promoting social justice in our own backyard,” he added.

“Everything is very good here,” said Sophie. “We are so happy for this course.”

For a print quality image of Sophie, contact the Communication team.

*Nina and Ellie’s names have been changed. Ellie does not yet have permanent residency. Neither wanted their names or photos used.

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