Ballarat is home to a strong community of Sudanese migrants. Many worship at the Ballarat Central Uniting Church and engage in a diverse range of activities to strengthen their connection with locals.
In 2011, the Ballarat Central congregation formed a ‘Women with Women’ group to nurture friendships between Sudanese and non-Sudanese women. What started out as a monthly lunch evolved into a weekly sewing class, thanks to the assistance of church elder Koang Jock.
Mr Jock, originally from South Sudan, migrated to Australia 11 years ago. He obtained a government grant to purchase sewing machines and the first class commenced in March 2012.
“We wanted the women to come together to build relationships between themselves, so that they can feel like they are not isolated,” Mr Jock said.
“They learn a lot about Australia and they integrate in the community.”
The Ballarat Central congregation runs a fortnightly Nuer service which enables the Sudanese members to worship in their native language. Many Australian-Sudanese children speak English as their first language and the worship services help the children learn about their parents’ culture.
“We want to integrate into our community, but we also want to maintain our language, especially for our children,” Mr Jock explained.
The sewing club is currently run by two teachers who are members of the Ballarat Central congregation – Judith Wheaton and Lyn Rawlinson.
“Lyn and I like sewing, so we thought that between us we could do something useful,” Ms Wheaton said.
“It’s a good way to get to know people.”
Every Friday afternoon, participants bring items they would like to mend or create, such as children’s clothes or carry bags.
Ms Rawlinson said the Sudanese community has greatly enriched the Ballarat congregation.
“I’ve loved the friends I have made. They are lovely girls,” she said.
“It’s good that they have their own Nuer service to go to. One girl whom I have made friends with speaks very little English, so it must be so hard for her. It’s lovely that she has the Nuer service to come to, which she can get a lot more from.”
Many participants in the sewing group are young mothers. The church provides a babysitter to look after the children while the women take part in the lessons.
Sarah Keat has participated in the sewing group for the past two years.
“I never did any sewing before. But now, I’ve learnt how to sew children’s clothes and my own clothes too,” she said.
“Learning is my favourite part. I can do something for my kids and for myself.”
Another activity that strengthens the connection between Sudanese migrants and the Ballarat community is a weekly homework club that operates out of Ballarat Library.
Many Sudanese parents greatly value education because their own schooling was disrupted by war. However, their limited English means they often struggle to help their children with homework.
Last year, the club had more than 40 registered students. Volunteer tutors included members of the Ballarat Central congregation and secondary students from Ballarat Clarendon College.
The club was recognised for its efforts in engaging migrant communities with an Outstanding Out-of-School-Hours Learning Support Program Award by the Centre for Multicultural Youth.
Ballarat Central minister Rev Kate Tierney paid tribute to the Sudanese members for their resilience and companionship.
“We have learnt a lot from our Sudanese brothers and sisters,” Ms Tierney said.
“We are in awe of their courage and gentleness as we begin to understand a little more of the suffering and trauma from which they have come, and have a growing awareness of the challenges that face them in building a life in a Western culture and a rather chilly regional city.”