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How one school is helping refugee students find their balance

Three smiling girls sitting against a black wall, with a glowing skipping rope draped around them.
The KMA troupe: Thang Khaw Lam, Thang Mang and Agnes Buzilu.

ABC Coffs Coast: Maddie Whitford

Orara High School on the Coffs Coast is trying out a unique way of easing the difficulties experienced by new refugee students.

With the help of a passionate teacher and a flow arts instructor, three students have created KMA, a performance troupe using LED poi, hoop and skipping rope.

"When the students first arrive from overseas, we like to try them out at different activities to see if they have any talents," said Alex Riske, a teacher for students who speak English as an additional language.

Mr Riske plays a key role in organising and supporting the troupe, which started in 2015, when students were packing away poi used in an exhibition.

"Some of our students began playing with them and Thang Mang showed a special aptitude for manipulating the poi."

When fellow student Agnes Buzilu shared her skill and passion for skipping, it was natural to add a rope to the act.

Khaw Lam, Mang's younger sister, was drawn to the elegance of the hula hoop and so the troupe bought an LED hoop.

With the help of instructor Freea Fontanella they have been developing their choreography to perform for other schools.

From one culture to another

Young refugees have to deal with big changes in their life, and creativity can help.

"The students are crossing over from one culture and life to another and are redefining their identities every day," Mr Riske said.

Instructor Freea Fontanella said performing has helped the students improve their self-confidence and the way they interact with their peers and teachers.

"Their concentration and focus have improved, as well as their skill level, and they seem to have a stronger sense of belonging and connection in the wider community," she said.

"Learning creative flow arts at a young age teaches mindfulness, it creates a balance in neural pathways, it allows them to express themselves and get out of the head and into the body.

"I feel more opportunities like this in our community will really benefit our young people."

1 girl practicing a performance in a dark school drama room, with 2 other performers and their instructor looking on.
KMA working with flow arts instructor Freea Fontanella to rehearse their act.

ABC Coffs Coast: Maddie Whitford

Working and learning together

The name of the trio is simply an acronym of the students' names, Thang Khaw Lam (year 7), Thang Mang and Agnes Buzilu (year 8).

The troupe are all good friends and were quick to point out the best things in each other's part of the performance.

"Agnes is good at skipping because she already has a talent for skipping, because in their country they always play skipping," Mang said.

"Mang is amazing with the poi and Khaw Lam is so good at the hoop," Agnes said.

However much friendship helps, the trio's different languages can prove tricky to manage.

"Sometimes it's different thinking you know — we don't always think the same things and sometimes that is hard," Mang said.

Their favourite part of the project is performing and they plan to keep doing it well into the future to become well-known and to inspire others.

"I want to do skipping and I want people to be inspired like how I was," Agnes said.

"When the students are free to express themselves … they are able to feel who they would like to be, to become something of their dreams," Mr Riske said.

"Out of these dreams the students often find themselves expressing something true that can be brought into reality.

"They would like to show others in their communities that, no matter how difficult life has been for you, no matter what the struggle and suffering you have gone through, you will succeed in the end."