Two years ago, when Ezidi refugees arrived in Armidale, Sarah Mills started teaching an intensive English class at Armidale High School.
It began with two students and since then 115 Ezidi students have joined the centre, which prepares them for high school education.
From next year it will become the first Intensive English Centre (IEC) in country NSW. It is the first time in 40 years an IEC has opened in a regional community.
She said the news, which is due to be officially announced by state MP Adam Marshall in the coming weeks, demonstrates that Armidale has been a successful regional refugee settlement site.
"They're saying, we're going to honour that by giving you guys a true centre, which will be on the new site.
"We're almost a separate school, I suppose, sitting on the Armidale Secondary College site. But we will have our own enter and exit points, but we'll be our own school there."
There are currently 75 students in the classes, taught in demountable buildings near the sports oval at the Duval campus.
"We're called the Intensive English Centre, but we're really a class."
They are split into six classrooms, spread over age groups and abilities, and Sarah said the students learn about everything they will face at school, from sports carnivals to how to use the canteen.
The refugees and their families started arriving in Armidale two years ago, with 100 people to start with, followed by more in the following months.
The atrocities that drove them from their home began on August 3, 2014, when ISIS militants killed more than 1000 men within the first few hours.
Thousands of girls, children, and women were later abducted, sold as slaves, or murdered. More than 200,000 Ezidis who fled the city were trapped, starving, on a nearby mountain, while the sick and aged who could not escape were executed.
Fathers and husbands were shot; mothers and young girls sexually abused; livelihoods and homes destroyed. Some Ezidis had been ISIS prisoners for years until ransomed; others had lost parents, grandparents, siblings, or children.
Since they started arriving in Australia, the intensive English classes, which began at Armidale High School, have grown a lot.
"It was just me and two kids (then) but now we have about 13 staff, all sorts of programs in place," Sarah said.
"We like to think we offer a rounded approach to what they need to do. It's not just about English."
As well as higher staffing levels, Sarah said the changes from next year will mean they have a permanent counsellor.
"As you can imagine, we often do a lot of incidental counselling as teachers. Something would have triggered them in class and they come to us and say Miss Sarah I am having a remembering time.
"So something's reminded them of something at home and they need some time out.
"Rather than us having to deal with that all the time, we will have a counsellor on site," she said.
Two years ago, when they were still at the Armidale High School grounds, an athletics carnival showed it can be difficult, despite all the work by the staff.
"We did all the best preparation, we thought we were really good, because we showed them shot put and javelin, and running and all of the activities.
"We didn't even think about the starter gun."
When that starter gun fired, all the Ezidi students hit the deck.
"They were like 'what the heck was that'."
Absolutely beautiful is how Sarah describes the students.
"Anybody who comes down to the IEC wants to stay here, in regards to teaching staff. They're very hard-working, diligent students. They just want to please, and they just want to do well in English and further their career options."
She said teachers begin by building trust and friendship with the students.
"When they do come to us, they do come very damaged, as you can imagine, because they have been through extreme trauma and violence and so we do work on a principle of trust, kindness, friendship, love. All of those things before we even touch base with English.
"Until we have that rapport with them, they basically just tell you to get stuffed, they're not interested. But they don't say it like that," she laughed.
"That's what we spend a lot of time doing, we build up trust and friendship."
Trauma has a big impact on the brain. Especially the continual trauma the kids have been through, and there are also gaps in their learning that need to be handled.
"Some kids have never been to school before. We've got 17-year-olds and 15-year-olds who have never been to school before.
"If you can imagine, really we're teaching kindergarten to about year 10, across the board from 12 to 17-year-olds."
Despite English being the focus on the centre, Sarah said they often say everything else comes first.
"The English at the end, that's our main focus obviously, but we often say the English is last. Because until we get the other stuff right, and until they know how to be at school, and be in a school, and be part of a school and follow the rules and all those sorts of things, then it can be very tricky for them."
The conoravirus pandemic was a particularly challenging period for the English centre, with a language barrier between teachers and parents, as well as a technology barrier, as students were homeschooled.
A lot of the families did not have access to wifi or a computer, and until they get a private rental property the families cannot get the NBN connected.
Sarah said they went with a welfare approach first, which involved calling every family with a translator, to make sure they were safe and understood what was happening.
"Then we had to send physical work packs home with translated instructions. So you can imagine how long that had to take for that many kids," she said.
"I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my entire life and I'm a pretty hard worker."
She said the kids, to their credit, did really well. Where they could answer questions they did. And one of the difficulties was ensuring students did not spend too much time on school work.
"They have such a strong work ethic that sometimes it's hard for them to remember that you need to have playtime as well.
"Some of our senior students are doing 10 hours a day of study. Even on the weekend. So at the moment our big push is, post covid, that balance between work and play."
The news that Sarah's group of staff and the Ezidi students will be independently funded by the state government from next year followed efforts by the NSW Teachers Federation last year, and it was backed by the education minister.
"With that separate funding and a bit more autonomy, we really can fine tune our programs," she said.
Currently, the only IEC outside of the greater Sydney area is located at Warrawong High School and supports newly arrived students in the Wollongong area. Warrawong IEC was established in 1979.
The story Armidale refugee success leads to a 40-year first in education first appeared on The Armidale Express.