Ali had never heard of Newtown when he first saw a flyer for Newtown Neighbourhood Centre. He had no idea where it was and wasn’t sure how to find it.
But find it he did, and he hasn’t looked back!
“The first time I came to Newtown I realised it’s completely different,” Ali said.
“When I came to Newtown I saw lots of young people. They were wearing whatever they wanted. They were talking loudly in the street and it didn’t matter. There was music everywhere. It was really busy and lively.”
Ali had been studying English for six months in Australia before coming to the English classes at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre. But English, his third language, still felt unfamiliar. His lack of fluency and cultural understanding made settling into Australian life difficult.
“It was hard and harsh actually, because some people tried to abuse my lack of knowledge as a new arrival,” Ali said.
“You feel embarrassed, especially when you are a mature migrant in a new country and you are trying to cope with everything in daily life. It is embarrassing to say, ‘Sorry, I don't understand. You have to be very rude or that type of person to be able to say, ‘I don't understand.’ It is hard.”
At first Ali was embarrassed about coming to free English classes at NNC. “I felt shy because I felt like it was a charity place or something like that,” Ali said. But he knew that classes of any kind were better than nothing, and he was determined to learn and to practise his English.
“I arrived and they told me the English class was upstairs. The English teacher is Cliff. He is an American. He is the perfect teacher. His class is not just an English class; it comes from all his experience of life so you can learn everything in his class.”
Ali learned about not only the English language but also Australian culture and slang. He met friendly students and staff, and with them discovered Newtown’s pubs for the first time.
“When I came to Newtown I saw how different the people are here—they are completely free. It was a little bit strange for me at first. But it was very interesting and I thought it was really good,” Ali said.
“Sometimes we need to get lost among people who do not look like us or who are different so that we feel more free.”
Ali learned about respect in Newtown, how good it felt to receive it and to give it and how it underpinned the sense of freedom he felt here.
“It’s about respect and love—everybody respecting each other. As long as people respect each other and don’t do each other any harm, our humanity is respected and everyone is free and happy. Life is too short to be hard or harsh to anyone or to create bad memories,” Ali said.
Talking to counsellors and staff at NNC helped Ali work through the problems he encountered, including racism.
“When I met the counsellor here I found out just how valuable people are. People are fragile, especially their mental health. If you create a bad memory for somebody, it takes a long time to heal that person.
“We should treat people with care. We should be careful when we talk to people not to discourage or disrespect them,” Ali said.
Today Ali says he is like part of the furniture in the English classes, and he counts Cliff and the NNC staff as friends and supporters.
“The English classes are perfect. They are awesome. Now it is hard to miss class. I can't tell Cliff that I can't come to class,” Ali said.
And Ali’s friends always laugh when he answers with, “Nah, mate.”
For Ali, finding Newtown has meant finding his way; and he is now enthusiastically preparing to go to uni to study finance or engineering.
NNC has been his launch pad and the place where he found “angels here amongst us,” and improving his English has prepared him for lift off.
Article by Ian Dewar
Images by Diana Shypula