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New program teaching Hunter refugees swim and beach safety

Each year, lifeguards and volunteer lifesavers perform thousands of rescues, first aid treatments and preventative actions on our beaches. In many cases they involve people from different cultures who have had limited exposure to the dangers of the surf or the skills to help them in this environment.

With Newcastle's refugee and immigrant population growing, Cooks Hill Surf Life Saving Club members have created and delivered a program to help our multicultural community better understand surf and water safety, and the region's iconic beach culture.

Funded by nib foundation, the Refugee and Immigrant Community Outreach & Water Safety Program has been conducted during Autumn for refugee families living in Newcastle from Middle Eastern, Asian and African backgrounds.

Cooks Hill Surf Club's Chief Education Officer, Jason Darney, said the program has been a wonderful success in not only developing surf awareness among culturally and linguistically diverse communities but also promoting a greater responsiveness to cultural diversity within the club and surf lifesaving community.

"Many people from different cultural backgrounds who come to our beach are doing so for the very first time. They have little to no understanding of the dangers surrounding the surf or knowledge of basic practices such as swimming between the red and yellow flags," Mr Darney said.

"Thanks to this new course, participants are now well equipped to not only enjoy the beach lifestyle that Newcastle so freely offers, but also pass on this knowledge to their family and other members of their community.

"Our hope is that as their confidence and skills grow these people will eventually get involved in our nippers and other surf lifesaving programs, and become patrolling members of our club," Mr Darney said.

Mr Darney said it's not only the program participants who have benefited greatly from the surf safety program. It has also played a big role in promoting greater acceptance and understanding of other cultures and nationalities at the club.

"We pride ourselves on being an inclusive club and this has been demonstrated by the way our members have embraced their role in conducting the program. Teaching multicultural members of our community about water safety and sharing their first positive experiences in the surf has been a wonderful and enlightening experience," he said.

Taking part in the program this Autumn was Kenyan-born, Zac Ekandi. Despite living in Newcastle for 10 years and visiting the city's beaches on many occasions, he never had the confidence to go in the water.

"I would go to the beach during summer and just walk along the sand. I've always wanted to swim in the ocean but the thought of it terrified me," Zac explained.

"When I heard about the program I thought it was my opportunity to finally do something that I have always wanted to do.

"The volunteers who ran the program not only gave me the knowledge about the ocean but also the confidence to finally take a swim. The first time I had the chance to do it was just amazing."

After completing the program, Zac now hopes to use his new-found knowledge of the ocean to encourage others to get involved.

"My next goal is to become a volunteer and one day help other migrants and refugees to go through the program. I want others to have the chance to overcome their fears of the ocean and enjoy this great part of the Newcastle lifestyle," Zac added.

nib foundation Chairman, Keith Lynch, said that program is a good example of how a modest amount of funding can assist a dedicated not-for-profit group to make a real difference by tackling a unique issue within its own community.

"The foundation identified the benefits of supporting this program far beyond the important surf skills and water safety knowledge that it provides participants," Mr Lynch said.

"Evidence suggests that programs such as this play an important role in breaking down cultural barriers and promoting the importance of social inclusiveness in our society," he added.