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Volunteer making a difference in refugees’ lives

10 March 20170 comments

Patricia Weickhardt is an unsung hero of the suburbs.

For twenty years, she has quietly gone about helping new migrants settle in Australia.

As a volunteer language tutor with migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia, her role ostensibly has been to help new Australians learn English.

But her contribution goes much deeper and extends to helping people understand their new country and its quirks, assisting parents with schooling arrangements, organising trips to places like Melbourne Zoo, and even providing household goods and garden tools.

But the Balwyn woman fell into the role almost by accident.

“I was a teacher of science and biology until I had children. And then I went back to emergency teaching but eventually I decided I liked being with my boys more than I liked emergency teaching,” Patricia said.

“And anyway my husband had a busy job, so I threw myself into community activities and volunteering,” she said.

“Someone mentioned AMES, so I did some training and became involved.”

This year Patricia celebrates 20 years volunteering with AMES Australia. Her first student was from Taiwan but over the years she has mentored people from across the globe.

“I enjoy meeting people and helping with their language and I became involved because I could see I was helping them find things a little easier,” Patricia said.

“I spent time in England when my husband worked there – so I knew what it felt like to be a little isolated. As a volunteer I could help people who have come to Australia in overcoming that,” she said.

Patricia developed a particular bond with Tibetan refugee ‘Pemba’ and his family that has lasted more than a decade.

“I have kept in touch with Pemba because I was really affected by his situation,” Patricia said.

Pemba was jailed and tortured by the Chinese because of his support for the ‘Free Tibet’ movement.

Upon his release he escaped to India by walking across the Himalayas to Dharamsala, in India – the city that is home to the Dalai Lama and his supporters.

Pemba, his wife and his young son came to Australia as refugees a few years later.

‘Pemba’ – who did not want his real name used for fear that his relations still in Tibet might face retribution – said Patricia’s help had been invaluable.

“When we got here as refugees with humanitarian visas given to us by the Australian Government, we knew no one,” Pemba said.

“Patricia was very helpful and kind. She taught me and my wife English, and she showed us around Melbourne and gave us emotional support,” he said.

“It was a difficult time for us and Patricia was there for us.”

Pemba told how Patricia gave them a fan when the weather turned hot and even provided garden tools so they could grow their own vegetables when the family moved into their own house in Melbourne’s south east.

He worked in a factory for seven and half years before gaining aged care qualifications and getting a job in a nursing home.

Pemba’s son, now a teenager, is hoping to do business studies at university.

“We are very grateful to the Australian government and people for giving us a safe place to live and we are grateful to Patricia for helping us for so many years,” Pemba said.

Patricia said it had been a pleasure to get to know Pemba and his family.

“Last Christmas Pemba came to the house with some bottles of wine for us. He said ‘these are for you because for so many years you have looked after my family’,” Patricia said.

“It was very humbling and it was good to see that Australia has given him and his family a new lease on life,” she said.

“It’s been a privilege to watch Pemba and his family grow and make new lives here.

“I’ve enjoyed helping all of my students. I enjoy meeting people and I like the idea of helping people.

“I’ve had some great experiences and it’s been rewarding to introduce people to life in Melbourne so to speak.

“I’ve gained insights into different cultures and as someone who enjoys cooking, it has been wonderful to learn something about different cuisines,” Patricia said.

But for Patricia, 20 years is just a milestone.

“It has all been wonderfully rewarding and I’ll continue to do it,” she said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist