One morning earlier this month, Dorothy Hoddinott left Wollongong at the crack of dawn to drive back to Sydney. The Holroyd High School principal had been attending a conference but was determined to make it back in time to see one of her former students graduate from university.
Zainab Kaabi finished high school 11 years ago. But her personal accomplishment was also an exceptionally proud and significant moment for her mentor and former principal.
Not only did Hoddinott once willingly add $9000 to her personal credit cards to secure her student a place at university. But the young asylum seeker inspired her to set up a trust fund in her name, which has since expanded to support refugee students studying in public high schools and universities across the state.
The Friends of Zainab trust fund was established when, in her final year of high school, Zainab Kaabi told Hoddinott she would have to drop out because, as she was now an adult, she would no longer be eligible for her welfare payments under the conditions of her temporary protection visa.
Hoddinott recalls telling her ”I’m not going to let you leave school, you’re too good. Sorry but you’re a scholarly girl.”
She contacted everyone she knew for donations and set up the trust fund, allowing her to remain at school.
The donations continued to support her through a bachelor of medical sciences at Macquarie University and a bachelor of pharmacy at Sydney University, which she graduated with earlier this month.
”It was like a dream come true and it was a special feeling that Mrs Hoddinott was so happy for me,” she said.
Hoddinott sees many students like Zainab Kaabi come through the gates of her school and she says her challenge is to get as many of them into tertiary education as possible.
”Once they’re at university, most of our kids do well and their learning trajectory is dramatic and steep.”
For many, entry to university was only made possible through the Friends of Zainab scholarship, now overseen by the Public Education Foundation.
It provides financial assistance to refugee students in year 11 and 12 and for the first two years of a student’s full-time university study.
”Last year, we had kids from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, and many other places,” the chief executive of the Public Education Foundation, Verity Firth, said. ”Many of these students have lived for a considerable amount of time in refugee camps and have had very limited formal schooling.
”In the context of the quite vicious politics around asylum seekers and refugees on both sides of the political fence, these are the stories of what these people are.
”These kids come to our schools, learn English and then go on to really contribute to Australian society in the most positive of ways. It tells the story of just how great migration is and why we should be welcoming these people for the contributions they bring.”
Zainab Kaabi, who spent six months in a detention centre at Woomera, said she would always be grateful to the Australian people.
”I see this country as a place that gave me the opportunities that I’ve always wanted and that is something I will never forget.”
This year’s round of scholarships will be awarded at a ceremony next month.
Amy McNeilage, SMH, 25 March 2013