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Yarrabah Immersion 2020

By Abigail Roberts

During the summer holidays, 10 year 12 students including myself completed community service at Yarrabah Primary School in Far North Queensland. Apart from experiencing the amazing scenery and tropical climate, as well as reminiscing over our year 9 visit to Yarrabah during Outreach, we certainly learnt more during the immersion than expected, and met individuals who impacted us heavily and who won’t be quickly forgotten.

History of Yarrabah:

Established on the land of the Guggandji people south of Cairns, the Yarrabah Community mission was established in 1893.

Indigenous people from various tribes were relocated to the mission, initiated by a missionary of the Anglican Church, Ernst Gribble. However, it would not be predicted that this relocation would later cause great disadvantages for future generations of Yarrabah, stripped from their homelands, such disadvantages are very prevalent today.

In 1957, the Yarrabah residents protested against the conditions they faced, such as poor working conditions, nutrition, health problems and more, however the leaders of the strike were banished from the Church.

Today, issues such as poverty, lack of attendance in schools and domestic violence impact the people of this community heavily. Whilst the Government has implemented various facilities, specifically the primary school which has a large number of dedicated teachers and great grounds, this remote community is disadvantaged by its great distance and commute to Cairns. Residents outside of Yarrabah must use power generators for electricity, and the area is subject to power blackouts, where some other cooking facilities are already not available. Similarly, whilst Yarrabah has a various number of local shops, for many needs the residents must commute to Cairns or similar nearby communities. Finally, Yarrabah’s health care centre does not have inpatient facilities, and its nurses must commute from Cairns.

The statistics surrounding Yarrabah indicate a large disadvantage for the community, which has been predominantly caused by the past treatment of those who enforced these people to relocate to the mission from their tribes. In Yarrabah, the median age is just 23, demonstrating a younger population in need of improved opportunities. The median income is just $224 per week, just over half of that of Cairns, and the unemployment rate was 54.7% in 2014, whilst it was 7.9% in Cairns, leaving 83% of the adult population on income support payment and the median monthly mortgage payment at $0. Another adversity faced by the people of Yarrabah is that approximately 34.3% of households are of a one parent family, meaning single parenting is prevalent.

However, despite such hardships faced by these people, they demonstrated amazing kindness, positivity and welcomeness during our community service experience.

We made great connections with the children and staff, playing games with them, sitting in their classroom, watching Frozen 2 with them, and helping out around the school. It was very rewarding to form connections with these students and experiencing their positivity despite the various challenges they face, as well as witnessing the culture they aim to preserve and promote- local languages are spoken in class. Similarly, the staff of Yarrabah were extremely hard working, notably a drama teacher who was very enthusiastic in encouraging the children to sing and dance for the end of year concert.

However, a challenge faced by the teachers was that due to circumstances faced by the children, such as lack of parental encouragement of attendance, the teachers found it extremely hard to maintain discipline in classrooms. Two other girls and I witnessed this where whilst sitting in a kindergarten classroom during roll call- most names did not receive a response, and two twin boys entered the classroom late in tears, seemingly very disturbed. Similarly, it became known to us that there were various children from the class who had simply attended on the first day of school and then missed every other day of the school year or term.

However, a positive initiative of the school was that many children were rewarded gifts such as bikes based on their levels of attendance, to encourage parents to send their children to school in order to prevent the detrimental behavioural and financial disadvantages of lack of attendance. Despite the adversities faced by this school community, there was certainly an optimistic atmosphere at the school. The teachers exhibited great hope for the future, and the children reflected this. During each assembly or announcement, a teacher would call out, “this is,” and the children would reply, “our land!;” just one example of the ways the community aims to restore its culture that was oppressed by the opening of Yarrabah Mission in 1893. We were also fortunate enough to attend the end of year concert, in which a large group of children, in cooperation with a teacher, performed a dance celebrating their culture. There were also various acts and performances at the concert, that each year group was enthusiastically involved in.

Overall, what I learnt from this immersion was that it is our responsibility as a nation to cooperate with this community in preserving their culture, and that the programs implemented at Yarrabah Primary school in increasing attendance rates are extremely positive initiatives that need more support and recognition. Finally, I felt extremely fortunate to make memorable connections with the welcoming people of this community.


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