Meet Safaa Cabot: The DREAM Project

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Reledev’s DREAM Project is all about reaching out to young students of refugee backgrounds who have settled in Australia. The challenge of settling in a new country is enormous: foreign language, foreign culture, foreign way of doing ordinary things like going to school, taking public transport, finding friends. DREAM was established to provide peer to peer mentoring for young refugee students in Australia, with the goal of empowering them as future leaders in Australian society.

Reledev caught up with one of our current DREAM volunteers Safaa Cabot, a 22 year old, Medical Science graduate and Clinical Trials Assistant. Safaa began volunteering for the DREAM Boys program working closely with high school students at Patrician Brothers Fairfield in Western Sydney. Safaa shares what motivated him to work so closely with refugee students and encourages others to get involved in the program.

How did you hear/get involved with DREAM Project? In August 2018, the former DREAM Manager, Saidee Talty, visited the University of New South Wales (UNSW) along with boys from the Patrician Brothers high school to learn about the options available for further education. I was asked to assist with the program and translate for the boys, as I was around their age and a student myself. I saw great value in what was being done and asked Saidee if I could do more, which eventually led me to join the DREAM Boys program.

What motivated you to volunteer? The choice to volunteer was straightforward- I am (was?) a refugee who came to Australia in 2005. Now, 14 years later, I’ve completed high school and graduated from university, a task that was once thought to be extremely difficult. By volunteering, I hope to show the boys and their families that it is possible to design a future for yourself in Australia; learning English is not impossible and their community will welcome them as they begin to befriend and integrate within it. All it takes is patience, persistence and effort. After all, if I could do it, why can’t they?

Tell us a little bit about your role within the DREAM Project. I started out as a DREAM mentor who attended sessions as part of a team that teaches students life skills. Over time, this developed into topic presenter, session leader and eventually the current role of “forward commander”, which shapes the week-to-week delivery of content, structure, and future objectives. I work with the team to evaluate the lesson and determine how the feedback, alongside student and teacher suggestions, can be adapted for future sessions. Some of the topics we’ve addressed include resilience and leadership, as well as practical mentoring activities on topics such as “identifying values” and “future planning”.

What have been some highlights of being a volunteer for the DREAM Project? We see the boys for an hour each week for eight weeks of the school term, and what I enjoy most about these sessions are the interactions. Sure, we’re supposed to mentor about life skills, long-term planning, virtues and other abstracts, but we’ve got to remember that they are students from the same generation, and this provides us with beautiful banter and discussions, whether in English or Arabic. This is one of my favourite highlights, and then there are the joys of seeing boys come out of their shell and confidently interact with their classmates, or when a student who started without a grasp of the English alphabet, begins writing full sentences after some months. These are some experiences from my volunteering journey, and I’m certain that more will follow as the weeks go by.

What advice would you give to someone considering volunteering for DREAM? I can assure you that the hardest part about the boys’ program is turning up. If you have mastered the art of punctuality, then you’re set and should consider it! The session content itself will be a breeze, your team will be there for you. English speaking or not, they’re still boys, and that’s enough to bond over sports, socialising, or other activities that teenagers are rather fond of…

Describe the time commitment to volunteer. How do you find a balance with work and study? Fortunately, I’m working part-time, and this enables me to attend (almost) every week. I have a habit of setting deadlines for myself, and during busy periods, this greatly pays off as it ensures that material for the upcoming lesson, as well as reviews from the previous lesson, are completed well ahead of time. Combining this with a relaxed work schedule makes work-life balance a minor issue and I am grateful for it.

What have you learned about yourself and others since joining DREAM? The immediate learning was that my grasp of Arabic isn’t as “acceptable” as I thought it is- colloquial Iraqi is all well and good until it meets other Arabic dialects. This was an instant teachable moment regarding my Arabic, since I found myself struggling to both listen and convey my ideas. The great thing about class is that the kids teach me as much (if not more) as I teach them, and this ranges from news on current events within the Arab world to what’s “cool” in teenage activities. Interacting with these young people taught me what it means to be Iraqi, and how that lifestyle compares to my (largely Western) values. The beauty of this program is that I’ll never know what I learn next.

What I learnt about others? The same as I’ve learnt about myself! Sometimes, I will shy from a difficult task, sometimes I don’t want to attend a session, and sometimes I question my involvement within the program. It’s nothing foreign, you see and hear variations of these attitudes from any volunteer. The lesson I learnt from others is that I am not alone and that I should not judge. We all have doubts that can be overcome, so it’s wrong to judge the behaviour of others one day, only to find myself emulating it the next.

Tell us a bit about some of the experiences mentoring refugee students. Being back in school reminds you of who you were as a student, and while classroom dynamics remain consistent, you get to revisit these personalities from a teacher’s perspective. Some students carry burdens that are revealed by certain actions or requests, others are vibrant and lovely, and you wouldn’t have guessed that they’ve come from a different country. Of course, a lack of English does not prevent the existence of class clowns, bullies and high achievers, as well as my favourite: the tech-savvy attention-seeking “jolly fat kid”. I like to think of myself as the students’ “big brother”. I’m here to teach them about my mistakes and highlight the opportunities available for them, providing them with lessons that I have not had at their age. Some students listen willingly and implement it; you see them progress over the months. Others (like myself, a long time ago), will dismiss the information as “this will NEVER apply to me”. While the latter group is challenging to work with, I try to ground myself by remembering that our perspectives differ, and use this to guide my instructions when explaining the benefits of certain traits and mindsets.

What is it like working with the other DREAM volunteers? Currently, we are a group of three volunteers managing 20-something students, and this provides an enjoyable challenge of balancing individual mentoring with classroom policing. Our creativity is truly fantastic- some weeks, we ‘threaten’ students with public speaking if they do not complete their work, or surprise them with chocolates for a job well done. We plan and coordinate our activities where we discuss previous weeks and prepare for future lessons. Additionally, we hold immediate post-session debriefs to evaluate the positives and areas of improvement from each lesson, and adapt this information for future reference. All up, we understand our commitment and can work effectively with one another- after all, it takes a special kind of dedication to reach Fairfield at 8:30 am on a Wednesday morning.

Last thoughts on DREAM. This program enables you to support the development of refugee students into independent individuals. It is a reminder about the other side of the refugee journey; fleeing the home country is just the first half. Assimilating into a new society is a challenge for many, and we should aspire to help them overcome these hurdles to produce an integrated community. I am grateful to DREAM for providing me with the opportunity to interact with these students.

Would you like to volunteer for the DREAM Project? We are accepting applications now. Please fill out an online form to register your interest.

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