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In Australia, Tibetan Immigrants Learn to Swim

A view of the beach and pool at Dee Why, a town north of Sydney that is home to Australia's largest Tibetan community. (Amy Yee for VOA News)
A view of the beach and pool at Dee Why, a town north of Sydney that is home to Australia's largest Tibetan community. (Amy Yee for VOA News)
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Refugees from Tibet live in many countries around the world. Australia’s largest community of Tibetan refugees is in a town just north of Sydney. Australia’s East Coast seems a world away from the Himalaya Mountains of Tibet. In their new home, hundreds of Tibetans are learning to swim – something they did not do back in Tibet. Swimming is an important safety skill for those living near the sea. It also is a good way for the refugees to improve their understanding of Australian culture.

Waves crash on the beach in Dee Why, a coastal town about 40 minutes north of Sydney. It is almost nightfall, but swimmers still are out in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Seawater feeds a large swimming pool at one end of the beach. Many people swim, splash and play here. They include adults and children from Tibet.

Dee Why is home to nearly 20,000 people, including more than 800 Tibetans. The refugees are slowly getting settled in their new home. The Australian government is paying for English classes and other training to help them.

The refugees in Dee Why are also learning to swim. About 300 Tibetans, including adults and children, have learned to swim through a program launched in 2012. A local non-profit group called Water Skills for Life helped to organize the training. The next swimming class for Tibetans starts this month.

Pasang Tsering is a 40-year-old Tibetan who left India for Australia in 2008. He had never seen the ocean before arriving in Australia, just like most Tibetans in Dee Why. But he learned to swim through Water Skills for Life, which also supports swim programs in Vietnam.

Pasang Tsering had never seen the ocean before emigrating to Australia. Now he teaches swimming to Tibetans in Sydney. (Amy Yee for VOA News)
Pasang Tsering had never seen the ocean before emigrating to Australia. Now he teaches swimming to Tibetans in Sydney. (Amy Yee for VOA News)

Pasang Tsering passed exams to become a swimming teacher himself. Now, he assists in the Tibetan swim program.

“Most Tibetans don’t know swimming so I hope [to] teach more Tibetan kids and adult. We live near the ocean, so dangerous for life, so we should learn.”

The beach is an important part of Australian culture. Children usually learn to swim at a young age. But the ocean can be life-threatening to non-swimmers and to people who do not know about the risks of powerful currents and sharks. From 2013 to 2014, 266 people drowned in Australia.

Tanya Carmont is a swim teacher and president of Water Skills for Life. She says many Tibetans who arrive in Dee Why have little experience with or understanding of the ocean. She remembers how her first Tibetan students frightened her.

“The Tibetans were very excited and very happy to be at the swimming center. The first thing I notice is they just jump in and that gave me the biggest scare of my life because none of them could swim. Tibetans in general are not afraid of the water. They love being near the ocean. They love going in the water, but they really don't know how to swim.”

She says their lack of knowledge could get them in serious trouble in the ocean. She says it is very important to have a swim program designed for them so they can learn water safety skills.

The Tibetan program includes a 10-week swim class that costs just $15. It includes a general water safety training that educates people about ocean currents. Students learn what to do in an emergency and first aid treatments, like how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, better known as CPR.

A small book on water safety was published in the Tibetan language for people in the swim program and for students in public schools. Translating materials from English is difficult since the Tibetan language does not have expressions for words like “rip current” and CPR.

Several years ago, some Tibetan students joined swim classes that Tanya Carmont teaches at community pools. She learned that there was a sizeable community of Tibetans in Dee Why and that they were eager to learn to swim.

She developed the program with the Manly Community Center, a local social services office.

The Australian government each year agrees to accept a set number of Tibetan refugees from India. In Australia today, there are about 1,200 Tibetans and their numbers are growing.

Learning to swim is an important safety skill. It also helps Tibetans mix in with Australian culture.

Phurbu Khonnyi Tsang is the president of the Tibetan community in the state of New South Wales. As a community leader, he helps Tibetans get used to life in Australia.

“Tibet and Australia [are] two different countries. Tibet is dry land mountains, snowy mountains, there’s no beach and ocean. We have only rivers and lakes. So when you come to Australia all the boundaries are beaches. It is very important to learn swimming and basic important things - swimming, their language, their culture.”

Tanya Carmont says Tibetan refugees who learn to swim show that they are accepting the Australian way. And many are jumping right in feet first.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Reporter Amy Yee prepared this story for Caty Weaver wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

beachn. an area covered with sand or small rocks that is next to an ocean or lake

splashv. to cause (water or another liquid) to move in a noisy way or messy way

current n. movement of air, water or electricity

sharkn. a large and often dangerous sea fish with very sharp teeth

drownv. to die under water

CPR – n. a way of trying to save the life of someone who has stopped breathing and whose heart has stopped beating

eager adj. very excited and interested

Now it's your turn. What other skills might be good to learn to live in Australia? What about your country? What would you advise an immigrant learn about your culture? Post your answer in the comments section.