HELPING the region’s new arrivals learn English has earned Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council two awards.

The conversation reading cafe class at SMECC started in early February 2020, providing a setting for volunteers to help people from a refugee background practice their English.

It won the innovation award last Friday at the 2023 Victorian Learn Local Awards in Melbourne.

Teacher and education manager Danielle Hren took home the leadership award.

Ms Hren is a second-generation refugee herself, with her grandparents and father born in Poland and put in work camps during World War II before arriving in Australia in the 1950s.

She said she was “shocked and grateful” to win the award.

“Before the second award I said there’s no way they will give another award to a regional area because we were up against all the people in Melbourne and Victoria but I’m very grateful to be recognised,” she said.

“It’s been the best learning outcome I’ve seen in years, students feeling that they have the confidence verbally and vocabulary-wise to apply for jobs or to apply for study is great.

“It’s just taking their more formal learning and giving them lots of verbal learning practise they don’t normally have.”

SMECC holds classes on Tuesdays and Fridays, with about 40 people attending weekly and 80 on the books.

Ms Hren and SMECC were presented the awards in part for their work on keeping the classes running throughout difficult COVID lockdowns.

“Most other education organisations went to Zoom, but we found with our refugees and a lack of IT skills and devices, it didn’t really work,” she said.

“We never missed a class during COVID, whether it was outside classes, excursions to essential services like supermarkets and chemists, or walking groups to the river.

“The students said these classes saved their mental health during COVID.”

Ms Hren said the classes can be tailored to help people from a refugee background achieve specific goals, like a TAFE application or preparing for a driving test.

Others simply treated it as an opportunity for talk and practice.

Student Hussain Hussain, from Iraq, said the classes helped him to gain employment as a barber.

“When I came to Australia I didn’t have any English at all, I got in contact with Danielle from the conversation class and they look after you and do anything for you as well,” he said.

“My English has been improved a lot because of the conversation classes, they not only teach us about the language but they teach us about living in Australia, how you can find a job or how you can achieve your goals.”

SMECC are starting English conversation classes in Robinvale on Wednesday and were currently running a colouring-in competition in the lead-up to Harmony Week.

They were also seeking volunteers for their conversation classes, driving program and food hub.

By: Jack Evans

Sunraysia Daily, Feb 28th 2023

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