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Catholic migrant supporting refugees says Federal Government finally speaking his language

Protais Muhirwa

Funding warning: Protais Muhirwa has welcomed the Federal Government’s funding of $1 billion into English language teaching programs but said money alone would not have an influence on success rates. Photo: Joe Higgins

SUNNYBANK parishioner Protais Muhirwa welcomed the Federal Government’s pledge for a billion dollar splash into English language teaching programs but he has warned cash would not solve low success rates for many.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge flagged the changes to the Adult Migrant English Program at the National Press Club on August 28.

Mr Tudge said the program already provided 510 hours of free language tuition, but on average, people only completed 300 hours of classes and more than a fifth left without functional English.

The extra funding was tabled to extend the scope of the program and to help people complete English language training.

Mr Muhirwa, who founded Active Refugee and Migrant Integration in Australia five years ago, said the funding was “a good start”.

But he said systemic changes needed to be made for there to be an uptick in English skills among the million Australians – and many hundreds of thousands more migrants and refugees – struggling to pick-up the language.

It was not for lack of trying either.

Mr Muhirwa said some of the people who had committed to the full 510 hours still could not introduce themselves or say their own names.

Even the lower average rate of 300 hours was a significant commitment – a high school student spends about 300 hours in class in a full school term.

Most of the people who needed this training had to dedicate their time to manual labour jobs, fitting in the English classes when they could.

Ultimately, the varied success rate was because the TAFE program was teaching academic English in the same classroom to people with varied levels of educational history.

There was no distinction made in teaching methods between people who were illiterate in their native language and people who were bilingual with post-doctoral qualifications.

Mr Muhirwa said it did not matter “how many hundreds of hours or how many billions of dollars you put in” if the program did not focus on individual needs.

He said TAFE was great for people who had prior educations because it gave them the academic literacy they needed to get the right selection criteria for employment.

For those that did not have any education, succeeding at TAFE was “not possible”.

Mr Muhirwa said he was not sure if any of the funding would filter down to ARMIA or other organisations like it, but he was hoping it would.

Planting a future: Local councillor Kym Marx, ARMIA founder Protais Muhirwa and Sunnybank parish priest Fr Dan Ryan plant a mango tree in the ARMIA garden for its 5th anniversary. Photo: Joe Higgins

He said grassroots community organisations like his had the capability and the programs to engage people where they were at in their education.

This was because organisations like ARMIA focused on practical English.

Mr Muhirwa said these new arrivals did not “need to know how to write essays”, they needed to be able to talk to shopkeepers and bus drivers.

He said the other key was being flexible with times because most people who needed lessons worked manual labour jobs and could not attend TAFE classes at all hours of the day – lessons had to be tailored around the individual needs.

ARMIA had not shut their doors once during the pandemic and had no desire to either, he said, working with people according to their schedules to deliver the training they needed.

“It is important they decentralise these important programs – English is one of them – so that they deal with individuals directly, communities directly, families directly,” he said.

“I pray hard one day we achieve real sustainable integration.

“Look, (these) people are Australians – they have to feel Australian; they have to participate, we have to participate in the socioeconomics of this wonderful country.

“That is paramount.

“Why do we keep feeding people who want to feed themselves.”

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