Orara High School teacher Alex Riske with students (clockwise from left) Sohrab Safizadeh, Kossi Adjikou, Thang Awi Shetta, Gifty Kpodo, Thang Mang, Thang Bu and Thang Kee.
Orara High School teacher Alex Riske with students (clockwise from left) Sohrab Safizadeh, Kossi Adjikou, Thang Awi Shetta, Gifty Kpodo, Thang Mang, Thang Bu and Thang Kee. Trevor Veale

Orara teacher helping refugee students tell their stories

AN ORARA High School teacher’s work helping refugee students find their voices has been recognised with a humanitarian award.

Alex Riske was presented with the Rural and Regional Award from STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) and the Refugee Council of Australia, during this month’s Refugee Week.

Mr Riske was recognised for helping refugee students share their stories through a series of exhibitions and books.

“Over the past four or five years, we’ve gotten students together and a lot of their creative writing and writing about their history and the stories of their lives, or their artworks and photographs, and we’ve had exhibitions showing their work,” Mr Riske said.

“At the same time I raised money – around $10,000 – through different organisations to print a book to go with the show.

“In between the 2012 and 2015 shows I also worked with a boy from Jetty High School, who was an asylum seeker held in Indonesian detention for two years, to write another book telling his story.”

The English as a Second Language teacher said the award reflected the quality work produced by students.

“I was totally flabbergasted when I was told I’d won and it took a long time for the news to sink in,” he said.

“Sometimes when you’re working in the regions, you don’t think people are noticing the work you’re doing.

“It’s wonderful for the school because it’s an acknowledgement of the work we’ve done and nothing could have happened without the students and the quality work they’ve produced.

“They produce such beautiful writing, they produce such fantastic artworks, all of their stories are so powerful and they’re just telling their truth and their life stories.

“We often say refugees are in a bad way and we need to help them, but we also have to understand because of everything they’ve been through, because they’ve really suffered, they really know life and that gives their work a real intensity.

“I’ve basically just been a facilitator in helping them getting that across.”

Mr Riske said he’s always had an interest in visual art, with his father working as a professional artist for many years.

He taught art classes for adults and young people before starting work as a high school teacher in 2001.

Mr Riske ran Orara and Jetty High Schools’ refugee transition programs simultaneously for a number of years, but now works primarily at Orara.

“When you’re creating on a visual level, you can reach parts of yourself you can’t normally get to.

“Traumas and troubles within you arise and art gives you a safe way to let those out.

“When the first refugee students arrived at Jetty in 2008, I started collecting their work and after a year or two thought ‘this is beautiful stuff, we can make an art show out of this’.

“It came about through a working relationship of respect between the students and myself, which was external to our formal teaching aspect, as quite often they would bring me their writing before or after school or give me an artwork.”

Mr Riske and his students are now working on Gunganbu, a multicultural performance art event showing at the Jetty Memorial Theatre in December.



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