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Nationwide language program, born on the NSW-Victoria border, celebrates 75 years

A nationwide language program has helped refugees and migrants navigate life down under for more than 75 years.

It was born in the border town of Bonegilla, about 12 kilometres east of Wodonga.

Thousands of migrants passed through the Bonegilla Migrant Camp between 1947 and 1971 – many of whom enrolled in language classes that would eventually become what today is known as the Adult English Migrant Program (AMEP). 

Leaving home

At first glance, Pasco Gasperov, Thu Nguyen, and Leah Wivine have little in common.

They came to Australia from three different countries: Pasco from the former Yugoslavia in 1968, Thu from Vietnam in 2017, and Leah from the Democratic Republic of Congo just six months ago.

But all three arrived in the border city of Albury-Wodonga without knowing any English.

Pasco was born in the little village of Primošten on Croatia’s southern coast in 1941.

He migrated to Australia more than five decades ago but still remembers it like it was yesterday.

Pasco and Marija Gasperov migrated to Australia in search of a better life for their young family.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Faith Tabalujan)

“We came on a flight from Vienna to Sydney, and spent all night on the train to arrive at the Bonegilla migrant camp at six o’clock the next morning,” he says.

Like many migrants, Pasco left his homeland in search of a better life for his family.

“In Yugoslavia, I had a lovely job in the army hospital. I had good pay and good conditions, but I had two boys … so if I didn’t give them a future or an education, what would happen to them? That’s why I left for Austria, Germany, and then Australia.”

Learning the lingo

But for Pasco, language was the first hurdle.

“In those days, I couldn’t speak one word of English — not a word — even though I could speak four or five other languages.

“I went to English classes in the first couple of months and learnt by communicating with people. I would ask questions like ‘What’s that?’, and they would reply ‘That’s a tablecloth.'”

Historian Bruce Pennay is an associate professor at Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Albury.

An image of an older man delivering a speech, with a wall of poppies in the background.

Bruce Pennay says the language program has evolved significantly over 75 years.(Supplied: Bruce Pennay)

Dr Pennay says that, as one of Australia’s first migrant reception centres, language learning was a priority at the Bonegilla migrant camp.

“Bonegilla was intent on assimilating non-British newcomers,” he says.

“Indeed, when the newcomers came, they went to a session where they were welcomed to Australia, welcomed to Bonegilla, and they were told no English, no job. That means as a migrant, the first responsibility that was put on you was learning English.”

Dr Pennay says the classes were initially quite basic, but soon evolved to meet the needs of the broader community.

“At first, the focus was on giving them greetings and counting words, and simple things like taking them on shopping excursions to learn something about money and weights,” he says.

“From 1951, the English program changed to make sure the migrants could take part in the community … whether that’s knowing what a post office did, or how to conduct yourself in a school or hospital, in court, or at a restaurant.”

Opening doors

These classes provided crucial opportunities for hard-working migrants like Pasco who, with his new-found language skills, went on to work various jobs in his three years at Bonegilla.

“I started as a hedgeman in 1968, but the manager of the camp said I was too good to be gardening … so I then worked in the linen storeroom before becoming a patrolman at the gate,” he says.

Importantly, they also laid the foundations for the current AMEP framework, which provides free language tuition to eligible migrants and refugees from more than 300 locations across the country.

Thu and Leah are two students enrolled in AMEP classes at Wodonga TAFE.

A picture of two young women of different ethnic backgrounds standing smiling together

Wodonga TAFE students Thu Nguyen and Leah Wivine are part of the AMEP’s long legacy.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Faith Tabalujan)

Thu migrated from Vietnam to Wodonga six years ago.

“When I started the program, I couldn’t talk much and sometimes misunderstood what people were saying,” she says.

Thu works in a nearby meat-packing facility but hopes to pursue a career in early childhood education.

“The course focuses on grammar, which has made me less scared of writing a letter or having daily conversations with people,” she says.

“And the teachers are very patient and have helped me learn pronunciation, vocabulary, and Aussie slang that’s important for teaching.”

Leah was only eight when she and her family were forced to flee the war-torn Congo, with no knowledge of Australian language or culture.

“At first I felt like I wanted to speak a lot but didn’t know what to say,” she says.

But since settling in Wodonga six months ago, Leah’s found a new life and calling.

“When I started the course here, I had a teacher teaching me how to measure things and how to spell, and I saw myself improving,” she says.

“I chose cookery because when I was little, it was so hard to find something to eat … so I always dreamed of knowing how to cook and to be a chef so I can help people learn how to do it too.”

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-28/bonegilla-language-program-75-year-anniversary/103026562 Nationwide language program, born on the NSW-Victoria border, celebrates 75 years

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