At Holroyd High it seems like there is a student for every calamity on earth.
“We have had waves of refugee and asylum seeker children in this school since 1995,” says principal Dorothy Hoddinott from her office in Sydney’s outer-western suburbs.
“From the disaster that was Yugoslavia, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Burma. If you think about where the conflicts and humanitarian disasters have happened, that has pretty much been the nature of the school’s student population.”
At Holroyd High six out of 10 students are refugees. They have come to Australia with little or no English. The majority have missed up to four years of schooling, although some have never been to school at all. Nearly all have experienced unspeakable horror — loved ones murdered, their countries torn apart, years spent on the run or in the squalor of refugee camps — and they have carried these collective traumas into their new lives, into their classrooms.
Mercifully their lives have collided with Dorothy Hoddinott who has been described as “Australia’s most remarkable educational alchemist” and “the kindest school principal in the world.”
She is also one of the most passionate and articulate advocates for refugees in a country that — despite its noble record for migrant and refugee intake since World War II — has been condemned by United Nations and human rights groups for its treatment of asylum seekers fleeing war and terror.
Successive Australian governments have been accused in recent years of causing extreme physical, emotional, psychological and developmental distress to children, both within Australian and offshore detention centers.
Widespread allegations of child abuse, rape, sexual assault, mental illness and self-harm have become commonplace, particularly on the island republic of Nauru which — in 2001 — became part of Australia’s so-called “Pacific Solution,” an Orwellian term for transporting asylum seekers to Australian-built detention centers on both Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Like hundreds of thousands of her fellow Australians, Dorothy Hoddinott has been outraged by government policy. “There are a lot of people in our community who are the children and the grandchildren, indeed the great grandchildren, of people who were refugees, but most people wouldn’t know because refugees don’t walk around with a badge saying ‘I am a refugee.’
“Australia has a clear international legal responsibility to assess asylum seekers when they reach Australia. We are a signatory state to UN conventions and we’re in breech of these conventions, certainly the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the one I’m most familiar with because it’s the one that most impacts on my work.”
Dorothy Hoddinott has been a teacher for 50 years. Daughter of a World War I veteran father and English immigrant mother, she began her career in Sydney in the mid 1960s before moving to the industrial outskirts of London to teach at a distressed secondary school.
After marrying and moving to Milan, she taught for seven years at the International School, becoming fluent in Italian. This awakened her to the life-altering challenge of learning a new language.
After returning to Sydney she taught at schools with sizeable refugee populations; then in 1995 she was appointed principal of Holroyd High which was effectively two schools in one — a secondary school and an Intensive English Centre.
The school was under-resourced, overcrowded and dysfunctional and Hoddinott immediately threw out the old rule book, replacing it with a new code of behaviour focused on “respect and responsibility.” She also set up a trust fund with her own money to help students go on to higher education.
The results have been extraordinary. Last year 54 percent of final year students were offered places at university, compared to the national average of 30 percent.
“This tells us about the strength and resolution of people who’ve had the courage to embark on a journey into the unknown,” the 72 year-old principal and winner of last year’s Australian Human Rights medal says.
One Afghan boy, Bashir Yousufi, fled Afghanistan in 2009 at the age of 13 after his mother had died of cancer and his father murdered by the Taliban. He spent eight months in hiding in Pakistan before making his way to Indonesia where he paid people smugglers to take him by boat to Christmas Island, 1647 miles north-west of Perth. “I thought it’s better to leave the country instead of dying,” he said later.
Bashir spent months in detention where he learnt to speak English from a dictionary. At Holroyd High he became vice captain and was then accepted into university to study accountancy.
Dorothy Hoddinott reels off numerous other success stories: the “beautiful” little 12-year-old Afghan boy with cerebral palsy who arrived by boat from Indonesia in a wheel chair and who soaked up learning with utter devotion; the Syrian girl currently flourishing at school after having escaped the horrors of ceaseless civil war; the 28 children from one extended Liberian family who survived a massacre of their village and have now all been educated at Holroyd.
“We’re talking about people whose lives have been completely dismantled,” she says. “The refugee experience is that you lose everything. You lose your home, your family members, your job. In moving around the world you lose the material things that attach themselves to a life.”
Which is why Australia — a country initially settled on Aboriginal land by convicts transported from England — has found itself so bitterly divided on the moral and legal question of asylum seekers.
Since the end of World War II Australia has absorbed over 800,000 refugees (not to mention an additional 12,000 Syrians in the current crisis), as well as more than six million settler arrivals. This makes the country one of the most successful multicultural societies on earth.
And yet for the past 14 years the country’s approach to asylum seekers arriving by boat has become an increasingly draconian and conflict-ridden one. The catalyst for this change was the “Tampa affair” which involved a Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa rescuing 438 refugees from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters and attempting to enter Australian waters. It was August 26, 2001 — 10 weeks before a federal election, 16 days before the co-ordinated terrorist attacks on the United States.
Conservative prime minister John Howard refused permission for entry, later telling the Australian people: “We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come.” Howard’s stance on strong border protection — particularly in the heightened atmosphere of Islamic terror — saw him defy the odds to win the election.
As refugees began pouring out of Afghanistan (and later Iraq and Iran as well), Australia took the extraordinary measures of both joining the war effort against the Taliban and using military force against refugees fleeing its brutality.
Boatloads of terrified, exhausted people were intercepted at sea by the Australian Navy and towed back towards Indonesia. Thousands of islands were excised from the Australian migration zone to prevent “unathorized arrivals” applying for protection visas.
Mandatory detention, which had begun under a Labor government in 1992 as a temporary measure to deal with “unauthorized arrivals” from Indochina, was extended to ensure the effective control and management of Australia’s borders.
Impoverished, broken nations like Papua New Guinea and Nauru were “paid” by the Australian government to incarcerate asylum seekers in deplorable conditions where they were given no recourse to the safeguards and appeals process of Australian courts.
The “Pacific Solution” was formally ended by the Rudd Labor government in 2008, but then re-introduced by Rudd’s Labor successor, Julia Gillard, as boat arrival numbers continued to climb.
The aim of both major political parties was not just border protection; it was deterring future asylum seekers from undertaking the dangerous journey by sea to Australia. But in building offshore detention centers billons of dollars have been spent condemning already traumatised people to a life in limbo. Those who managed to slip through the dragnet have also suffered the appalling fate of indefinite mandatory detention in Australia.
This writer met one father whose 11 year-old daughter had tied a sheet to the ceiling of her cell, swallowed a bottle of shampoo, then put her head in the makeshift noose. When the guards managed to break the door down her parents and seven year-old brother found her lying in a sea of vomit, her face transluscent with death. She survived, but only just.
“Why are you doing this to us?” the father pleaded with me when I visited the detention center.
The family had spent many months behind barbed wire in one of the remotest parts of Australia after their rickety boat had broken up on Ashmore Reef (205 miles north of Broome) following 11 hair-raising days and nights at sea.
Their story has become commonplace and it is enough to make Dorothy Hoddinott incandescent with rage. This is only partially ameliorated by the fact that on the day we meet the progressive Malcolm Turnbull has been sworn in as Australia’s new prime minister, replacing the hardline Tony Abbott who came to power two years ago vowing “to stop the boats.”
(Since unseating Abbott, Turnbull has expressed concern over the state of offshore processing centres but vowed there would be no resettlement of people to Australia from Nauru or Papua New Guinea.)
“I think the deliberate punishing of people who have sought asylum … has to be the cruellest thing we could ever do to young people,” Hoddinott says finally. It can be the catalyst for the sort of despair that leads to terrorism at its most extreme, and to mental illness at the other end of the spectrum.
“Here at Holroyd we are doing two things. We are formally educating children, but we are also educating people, not just to be citizens of Australia, but citizens of the world.
“I think we should be all thinking in that big picture way.”