Dialog Box

20 June 2019

Refugee Week 2019: a pathway to belonging

Dandenong refugees prepare for the citizenship test

Hands up if you can name each of the state and territory capitals? What about the date that Anzac Day is celebrated? And can you name the power under which laws are put into action? (Answer: Executive power*)

All the above are examples of some of the questions that could come up during the Australian Citizenship Test, where applicants must answer a set of 20 multiple choice questions, 15 of which they must answer correctly in order to pass.

Can you imagine what it would be like to complete this test if you’ve had very little schooling and English is not your first language?

That is the reality for the women (and a few men), who attend CatholicCare’s Pathway to Citizenship program. Most of the participants are refugees from Afghanistan which, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, has one of the lowest rates of literacy in the world. Only around 31% of people in Afghanistan aged 15 and over are able to read and write. Women fare even worse with literacy levels sitting around 17%.

Each week at CatholicCare’s Dandenong office, participants are supported to prepare for the citizenship exam. On the morning that I visited, 14 women and one man were in attendance. Another 25 were expected to attend the afternoon session later that day.

The session is led by Aisha and Valerie from the Springvale Learning and Activities Centre (SLAC), a Learn Local and Registered Training Organisation specialising in adult education for migrant communities. The program focusses on improving participants’ English language skills; a key barrier to passing the citizenship test. Sessions also cover the content in the citizenship test, using games and sometimes role-play to help participants understand meaning and concepts. Practice tests - both paper-based and online - are also a feature of the program.

‘Attaining citizenship is just one outcome of this course,’ explains Elena Sheldon, the manager of the Springvale Learning and Activities Centre. ‘For the participants, the course provides social connection, reduces stress and increases confidence.”

SLAC have partnered with CatholicCare to deliver the program since 2018. Last year 25 participants attended; to date we are aware of at least five who have since passed their citizenship test.

Sharifeh Ghorbani hopes to be one of those joining the ‘citizens club’ in the near future.


Photo: Sharifeh Ghorbani, refugee from Afghanistan, hopes to pass her citizenship test.

After war broke out in Afghanistan, Sharifeh and her husband fled their home to take refuge in Iran, where they were to remain for the next 30 years. In 1995, Sharifeh’s son, Sabor, who had been playing in the street outside their home, tragically disappeared. Despite the family searching for him for several years, Sabor was never found and he was presumed dead. Further heartbreak was to follow when Sharifeh’s husband contracted cancer and passed away.

Hope arrived in June 2012, when Sharifeh - granted a humanitarian visa - came to start a new life in Australia with her remaining three children.

Fast forward to 2018 and, in a twist reminiscent of a Hollywood movie, Sharifeh received a phone call from her long-lost son. He explained that he had been abducted by two men and had been forced to fight as a child soldier for the Taliban. He had since escaped and journeyed back to his village in search of his family. By sheer luck, he came across an uncle who was able to provide Sharifeh’s contact details. Sabor phoned his mother to break the news that he was alive, and that he was now married with one young child and another on the way. Sharifeh is overjoyed with tears when she relates the story of hearing her son’s voice again. She desperately wants to visit him, to hug him and cook him a meal – but in order to do that, she will need a passport so she can travel under the protection of the Australian government. And before she can apply for a passport she will need to pass the test and be granted citizenship.

Like Sharifeh, many of the participants in the Pathway to Citizenship program have hopes of one day being reunited with loved ones; their families having been torn apart by conflict are now scattered across the globe. But a passport is not the only benefit afforded by citizenship. For many refugees, suffering the ongoing trauma of displacement from their homes and communities, citizenship can provide a sense of safety and belonging that a permanent residency visa alone cannot provide. For them, being able to say ‘I am Australian’ represents a huge step towards healing – and hope for the future.

*Executive power is the power to put laws into practice. The Executive includes Australian Government ministers and the Governor-General.

This week is Refugee Week, and the theme is “Share a meal, share a story”. To find out more:

Refugee Week 2019

CatholicCare Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support

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