Surfing lessons help asylum seekers integrate in Australia


Surfing and beaches are some of the first images that come to mind when you think of Australia – beach life is intrinsic to the culture down under. That’s why a surf school and an NGO joined forces to offer surf lessons to refugees and asylum seekers struggling to build new lives in Australia.

Being a refugee is often a painfully lonely experience. Most have lost everything and are struggling to deal with trauma left over from their experiences in their home country or during their journey. Besides this, they have to rebuild their lives from zero in an unfamiliar culture.

To help with this adjustment, the humanitarian organisation Settlement Services International created Surfing Without Borders to help refugees interact with Australians and Australian culture via the country’s emblematic sport.

The group lessons, provided by the Let’s Go Surfing surf school, take place on the iconic Bondi Beach.

(Photo from Surfing Without Borders album shared by SSI International Facebook page)

(Photo provided by SSI)

“Many people die in the ocean when making the crossing”

Danny is a political refugee from Iran who took part in the programme.

I took swimming lessons as a kid in Iran. I love the water – I even worked as a lifeguard back home. So I was really excited to try surfing.

Being in the water, I felt confident and happy and strong. I had the feeling of freedom and was able to escape my problems.

When I left, I lost everything. Still, I try to remember how lucky I am. So many people die in the ocean when making the crossing [Editor’s note: Many asylum seekers like Danny often pay people smugglers to take them from Indonesia to Australia by boat. Hundreds have died on the dangerous journey. In 2015, Australia introduced tough restrictions on illegal entry by sea. Now, refugee boats are often towed back to Indonesia or migrants are sent back in lifeboats]. I had a lucky journey, so I am very grateful. And now, I can just enjoy being in the water.

Before participating in the surf lessons, participants have to complete a water safety course. Even so, instructors work to slowly acclimatize the refugees to the water — one reason being that some of them were traumatized by horrific boat crossing experiences.

(Photo from "Surfing Without Borders" album on the SSI Facebook page)

I met new people in the surfing class — both other refugees from Iran and Afghanistan and also the Australian instructors.

I live by the beach and now I surf every weekend. I am adjusting to life in Australia. When I arrived, I didn’t really know any English but I’ve improved a lot! I now have a job in construction and an Australian girlfriend.

Danny’s story is relatively rare. Many asylum seekers, especially those who attempt to arrive in Australia illegally by boat, never get the opportunity to settle there.

In 2013, Australia reintroduced offshore processing of asylum seekers and now send many to detention camps on the Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Kevin Rudd, Australia's prime minister at the time, explained that the “Regional Resettlement Arrangement” between the two countries stipulates that “any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees”. If their claims are accepted, asylum seekers in these camps can settle in Papua New Guinea or Cambodia, which also signed accords with Australia. If their applications are rejected, they risk being sent back to their country of origin.

We recently documented the tension and allegations of abuse at the asylum seekers’ camp in Nauru.