I spoke to Anna Walker and Klaudia Lozo in the warm offices of the Louise Multicultural Centre in Box Hill. Anna, who has just assumed the role of president, is passionate about her work, as are all those who come together in the organisation – and all are volunteers. She hales from Scotland, and coming to Australia was an eye-opener for her. “People from Malaysia … in Scotland I’d never met any before. Just the diversity of the nature of Australia amazed me, and people cooperate with each other to make it a good place,” she says. “We get a lot out of this, and participants at the centre, they get a lot out of it. Their English improves and I think, more importantly, their confidence improves. They mainly come to learn English, but for instance we also have Mandarin classes – I started to learn Mandarin from one of our tutors. When you learn a language you also learn about the culture.”
“We have the Korean Drumming,” adds Klaudia. “We have Chinese dancing and a Chinese national version of line dancing. Although it is about learning the language, the basis is mainly social. We have had some students coming to us since inception – 34 to 35 odd years.”
Klaudia goes on to describe how people coming to the centre are eager to share each other’s cultures. Recently they had a Moon Festival mid-morning tea. People brought food in to share. “You get different cultures saying ‘Oooh what’s that and how did you make it?’” she says. “And you’ve got Chinese ladies trying to make Greek Spanakopita. One of them was successful, but there was a Greek cake that one of the Chinese ladies tried to make – I think she put in three times the amount of cinnamon required! The Greek lady promised to come over to her place and show her how to do it.”
Much of what happens in classes is contextual learning. For instance, approaching local elections were used as both a tool to teach English and an integration opportunity. Students were taught about the Council and about its responsibilities. Those who came from countries where freedom doesn’t exist have to get used to the notion that it is safe to choose. “If you’ve come as a refugee, you really need to learn that you can have different opinions and you are not going to be castigated because of that,” says Anna.
Both Anna and Klaudia emphasise how much they too have learned from their pupils, giving as an example students who come from China. “We often put the Chinese as one group, but they are so very different. A lady who comes from Beijing has different ways than somebody from Shanghai, and very different to Hong Kong; it is wonderful learning about the variety. You realise that you cannot make people just one group” says Anna. “I think what often impresses me is people from very different cultures, the willingness they’ve had to share with each other. So you will have someone from Egypt who is struggling about something; a student from Japan says ‘Oh I know’, and that sharing sense really becomes a strong bond within the class”.
Occasionally the centre will have students who have difficult home circumstances; Anna recalls one case where a particular family had child issues at school. “The woman in question started to do an English class, and then did volunteer work here in the office, developing skills and confidence so that eventually she was able to stand on her own two feet. We were able to step in and do a one-on-one program with the family to help them build their confidence to work, and also for the child to get assistance. The child progressed beautifully and is now comfortable at school – it is a real success story!”
The Louise Multicultural Centre started through St John’s parish in Mitcham, and out of the local migrant hostel, when the Vietnamese boat people were coming. The need for action was obvious to founder, the late Sister Miriam Boland of the Daughters of Charity order. She asked herself the question “What do these people need?” They needed blankets; they needed toys for the children … Recruiting some of the St John parishioners Sister Miriam helped out wherever they could. It might have been English – trying to help the people to understand what letters meant; driving pregnant women to the Royal Women’s Hospital – anything that was required. Eventually the Parish Priest and the Council got wind of what was going on and a house was allocated so that people could have a place to go. And so it has become the organisation it is today – still 100% voluntary, as a Neighbourhood or Community House and an indispensable part of the community.