The Aqua English Project

Sebastian GeersCase Studies

The Aqua English Project won the inaugural Welcoming Cities Awards for Change in the community category.

Welcoming Cities spoke with refugee lawyer Sarah Scarce to discuss The Aqua English Project and how important it is to ensure people from diverse backgrounds understand water safety.

Sarah and her mother, Julia Dixon, who teaches English as a second language, co-founded The Aqua English Project 16 years ago when they realised a high percentage of people who had drowned in South East Queensland were from migrant and refugee backgrounds. Since then, the project has helped more than 34,000 adults and children learn to swim through the delivery of aquatics programs that integrate language, water safety and essential swimming skills.

Welcoming Cities: Why is it so important for people arriving in Australia to have ready access to swimming lessons?

Sarah Scarce: From 2008-2018, 794 people who were born overseas drowned in Australia’s waterways. When we reflect on what it means to engage fully in the Australian community, swimming forms part of our recreational pastime. However, swimming, and accessing all the sport and recreational activities associated with swimming, is not easy for new Australian populations.

Migrants and refugees face significant barriers when it comes to access and inclusion in swimming. These barriers are often invisible to the broader Australian community. Indeed, pools and aquatic facilities are often unaware that language, swimwear, public transport, the cost of entry and lessons, self- perception, gender, a feeling of welcomeness and body language create significant hurdles.

WC: So, inclusion is more than ensuring everyone can swim?

SS: There needs to be a dual focus on language as well as learning to swim. Swimming pools and recreation facilities need assistance in better equipping themselves as welcoming venues that can confidently welcome, engage, teach and empower our new communities.

Swimming pools are Australia’s version of the town square: a natural meeting place when the weather is hot and the desire to cool off becomes the most important consideration of the weekend! To live in Australia and not access the water in a recreational, competitive or medicinal capacity is the antithesis to what most Australians would consider a natural part of our laid-back lifestyle.

WC: Tell me about the combination of learning to swim and practising English. How does this help the participants?

SS: For The Aqua English Project, swimming and English are inextricably intertwined. Working with cultures that speak English as a second, third or fourth language requires an understanding that language will form part of a culturally sensitive and socially inclusive lesson plan. What does it mean to “keep watch”? What does “no bombing” mean? What is “lane etiquette”? A socially inclusive and culturally sensitive program should empower its participants to return to the swimming venue on their own. They should be able to confidently engage with the front desk and lifeguard staff, find their way around the complex, navigate to the safe areas by understanding the signage, and make informed choices as to where their children will swim and how they will be supervised.

WC: How is this program helping people settle into their new Australian community?

SS: A great example is when I returned to Yeronga Pool for our permanent Saturday program funded by Brisbane City Council Active Parks. A lady from Eritrea, who learned to swim with us over 10 years ago, walked into the complex with her children who were swimming in the learn to swim program. While her children were swimming, a friend of hers joined her on deck for a Merlo coffee, and I thought how very Australian is that! Ten years ago she was having panic attacks and really didn’t want to swim but somehow knew she had to for the sake of her children. We created a sense of value that she was happy to pass on to her children through formal swimming lessons and squad. She also found a sense of welcomeness at the pool venue because she invited friends to meet her for coffee, and that comes from having confidence in the venue and staff who work there.

We have also seen people survive. They have re-empowered themselves through swimming
after nearly drowning, or have been able to rescue themselves or make better decisions for a loved one in Australia’s aquatic environments.

WC: What can local governments do to support swimming inclusion?

SS: We work on the fundamental belief that genuine change happens from the ground up, and this is supported at the local level. Our relationship with councils and their aquatic centres (whether leased or internally managed) is fundamental to social inclusion and community wellbeing. We are uniquely placed as a voice that understands the needs of our multicultural community and its support services, the needs of the venues, and the needs of the councils.

Each have their own expectations for pool use, community participation and programming, and we manage those expectations alongside our own every day. The solutions to many of our barriers to participation already exist in current council programming and/or pool leases. We just need to review these documents and policies through a cultural lens that balances the needs of all invested parties. We are proud of the contribution we have made with this approach in Logan, Brisbane and on the Gold Coast.