Protecting the human rights of refugee and disadvantaged students in the community is an ongoing responsibility, according to Dorothy Hoddinott AO.
Ms Hoddinott, the principal of Holroyd High School in Sydney, is one of four finalists for the 2014 Australian Human Rights Medal.
“When I look at the communities that represent my school, I see continuing injustice and a need to support people in dealing with, sometimes institutional, blindness to their plight. Between asylum seekers, refugees and migrants the need doesn’t go away.”
Ms Hoddinott has spent her career working in schools where there are substantial numbers of children with refugee backgrounds.
“I first came across the importance of speaking up about the rights of young students when I was teaching in the 1970s and encountered refugee children from the Lebanese Civil War.
“Then I went to Leichhardt High School and met Vietnamese students of refugee status, many of whom had been through appalling situations.”
From her current vantage point at Holroyd High School, Ms Hoddinott believes that little has changed.
“We have had waves of refugee and asylum seeker children in the school since 1995 – from the disaster that was Yugoslavia, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Burma.
“If you think about where the conflicts and humanitarian disasters have happened, that has pretty much been the nature of the school’s student population.”
More than simply accommodating these students, Ms Hoddinott argues the importance of empowering them to become active citizens. She established the ‘Friends of Zainab’ trust fund in 2002 to help disadvantaged children to obtain crucial secondary and tertiary education opportunities.
Ms Hoddinott, appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2008 for commitment to social justice, also stresses the benefits of English as a second language (ESL) education.
“ESL plays a very important role in helping people integrate themselves into Australian society.
“If people don’t have the language tools to manage both the school curriculum and the curriculum of everyday intercourse in the community, they are condemned to a life on the margins of the community.”
Seeing formerly disempowered and illiterate students enjoy success in the education system helps inspire Ms Hoddinott to continue her work.
“Those sorts of stories just bring goose pimples to the skin of teachers, to think that we can take a child who has that degree of disadvantage and move that person through to complete a university degree and aspire to pursue postgraduate tertiary education. It is highly motivating.”
More than anything, however, Ms Hoddinott remains energised by the ongoing need for community advocacy in protecting young refugees.
“The past and current treatment of children in immigration detention and some aspects of the treatment of young asylum seekers in the community are in breach of child protection legislation at a state level.
“The vulnerability of those children continues to be a major issue and, by extension, the vulnerability of their families.
“I think that we need to do a great deal more in that regard. It’s essential if we are to avoid ghettos of poverty and resentment in newly arrived communities.”
This is the second of a series of four profiles of our Australian Human Rights Medal finalists for 2014. The winner will be announced at the Human Rights Awards on 10 December at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Tickets are available online.