Aqua English program helps refugees overcome trauma and learn to swim

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© Provided by ABC News Sarah Scarce has run the Aqua English program in Brisbane for 15 years. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Edwina Seselja)

When Manahil Hassan Hamuda sees water, she sees her friend’s face. 

Seven years ago, Ms Hamuda and her friend were walking back to their African refugee camp after a day’s work when heavy rain flooded a river in their path.

Ms Hamuda warned her not to cross, but her friend was confident she could swim.

“When she was crossing the water was heavy and then she fell down,” Ms Hamuda said.

“The water took her. I can’t even help her.

“I was trying to get all these sticks so she can grab this thing and come out, and she can’t do it and the water just washed over her.”

Her friend’s body was never found.

When Ms Hamuda arrived in Australia to begin a new life, the trauma of the loss stayed with her.

“If I’m going on the road and I see water on the side, I can’t go,” she said.

“I can just see the way she was crying for help and it really affected me.”

Now with children of her own, Ms Hamuda realised she had to learn how to swim and overcome her own trauma to ensure she could keep them safe.

Last week, at Acacia Ridge Pool on Brisbane’s southside, Ms Hamuda stepped into the water for the first time since her friend’s death.

In doing so, she joined more than 33,000 other refugees and migrants who have enrolled in the Aqua English swimming program.

‘Clash of culture’

Refugee lawyer Sarah Scarce co-founded the program 15 years ago when she and her mother — an English as a second language teacher — realised how many people were drowning in south-east Queensland.

When they looked at the issue more closely, they discovered many of those drownings or injuries involved refugees and migrants with no prior swimming experience.

As a “naive” 20-year-old university student, Ms Scarce picked up the phone to the Islamic Women’s Association of Queensland.

Suddenly she had 20 Muslim women at Yeronga Pool.

“When we first started out, our flagship pool was Yeronga Pool,” Ms Scarce said.

“In all honesty, that was the only pool that would give us room and give us a chance as a project.

“There was a clash of culture between the very quintessential Australian lap swimmer and the new generation swimmers we were hoping to bring into the swimming pool.”

Focus on trauma

Since then, Aqua English has evolved from a drowning prevention program to a social inclusion and equity program that educates refugees on how to find swimwear, how to read safety signs and pool etiquette, as well as how to swim safely.

The program has helped refugees and migrants from more than 44 different cultures and backgrounds.

The 2021 Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report found that on average 57 migrants drowned in Australia each year.

Of the 294 drowning deaths in the past 12 months, 29 per cent were migrants.

More than 70 per cent of Aqua English clients were women, Ms Scarce said, because they were usually the primary carers for children.

One in two Aqua English clients have been touched in some way by drownings, like Ms Hamuda.

“First I was scared to get in, but all in my mind and my thought I said, ‘That was seven years ago,'” she said.

“It’s really sometimes hurting me — the moment I see water, I just see her face.

“But when I put my legs in water, I just say, ‘Allah, give me strength’ … and I get in and I just feel relaxed.”

Ms Scarce said when her organisation realised just how many clients were struggling with prior trauma, the focus shifted.

“We enjoy taking the adults because it’s not so much the physical aspect of the swimming, but it’s getting into the headspace with them and helping them overcome those things, those prior traumas,” she said.

New clients are found using “old-school” techniques, like turning up to a community group with a plate of lamingtons to slowly build trust and confidence.

The program also has strong partnerships with Swimming Queensland and dozens of community organisations and charities.

‘Sparks in my heart’

Alongside Ms Hamuda in the pool is Bosnian refugee Mira Spremo.

As a child, she nearly drowned in a river, instilling a fear of water that lasted decades.

Ms Spremo tried to get lessons when she came to Australia but could not find the support she needed — so she gave up, despite her doctor urging her to swim for her health.

Staff at the Queensland Program of Assistance to Survivors of Torture and Trauma connected her with Aqua English in what Ms Spremo said was a “life-changing” moment.

“Today’s lesson with coach Sarah was something different, something that really puts some sparks into my heart,” she said.

“I have two grandkids, so now I can go into the water with them not being scared if I can save them.

“If I can’t save myself, how can I save anyone else? That’s just amazing, I feel different, completely different.”

Ms Scarce said she dreamed of seeing one of her clients competing in the Brisbane 2032 Olympics.

“I would love to see somebody in the mix there coming from Logan or Brisbane, in any of these programs, representing Australia and Brisbane in 2032,” she said.

“We’d fill out an entire grandstand with the Aqua English community and cheer for that person.

“I could probably retire happy then.”

Sarah Scarce is a finalist in ABC Radio Brisbane’s Community Spirit Awards, which celebrates the positive difference individuals and groups are making across Brisbane. Click here to be inspired by all 18 Community Spirit Award finalists and vote for your favourite in the People’s Choice Award category for 2021.

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