Learning for Inclusion: A partnership with the Newcastle Muslim community to promote cultural awareness and social inclusion.
Newcastle is a large regional population centre with a Local Government Area (LGA) population of 154,777 (ABS 2010), yet cultural diversity is approximately half that of other Australian cities. The University of Newcastle’s Callaghan campus is located in the Newcastle LGA and in contrast to the wider community is very culturally diverse with 103 countries represented amongst its student body (University of Newcastle 2011). This situation can prove challenging for both international students and members of the local community. In recent years, there has been an increase in international students from the Middle East, particularly from Saudi Arabia. While Newcastle has always had Muslim residents, they currently comprise 0.4% of the population (ABS 2006), the influx of students from Saudi Arabia since 2005, and the visible cultural difference they represent, has thrust the local Muslim community into the spotlight. The proposal in 2010 for a new mosque to be built at Elermore Vale to accommodate the growing congregation only heightened the attention from the local community. The aim of this project, therefore, was to address the marginalisation experienced by the Muslim community in Newcastle.
The University of Newcastle (UoN) and the Newcastle Muslim Association (NMA) have worked collaboratively on numerous projects since 2005. As part of this successful working relationship, we have continually identified and discussed emerging issues and needs within the wider Newcastle community. One of the issues under discussion for some time has been the need for a community education initiative that would engage children and adolescents, to increase their understanding of religious and cultural differences and to provide opportunities for informal and personal interactions between different cultural groups. In 2009, during Harmony Day celebrations, more than 80 primary school aged children from across the region attended the University to meet with students from varying cultural and religious backgrounds, to undertake targeted activities and to make suggestions for how they could initiate socially inclusive activities within their school environments. The success of this event led us to believe that this type of exercise could be further developed and extensively trialled via a partnership with the culturally diverse local Muslim community.