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River Nile Learning Centre students and Executive Officer, Rahel Davies on an excursion to Federation Square

Left to right: Kedra, Misra, Rahel, Aziza, Hirut and Mona

In the heart of North Melbourne, a very special school offers refugee and asylum seeker women a safe and supportive environment to learn.

The original River Nile Learning Centre (RNLC) was established in 2006 to assist the African refugee community. In 2016, it became a registered senior-secondary school for girls from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds, changing its name to the River Nile School (RNS).

A new RNLC was established in 2017 to provide free education to refugee and asylum seeker women, who are older than school age, on bridging visas or whose personal circumstances prohibit them from enrolling anywhere else.

Beyond providing pre-accredited foundational English and digital literacy classes, the RNLC gives these vulnerable women a place to come and be part of a supportive community.

Two women wearing hijabs type on laptop computers

Current students Aziza and Hawa in the classroom

Rahel - who came to Australia from Ethiopia when she was 2 years old – said she loves working with people from different backgrounds and building close relationships with students.

I’m so lucky because I love my job; it really is so rewarding seeing our students thrive. It doesn’t really feel like work most of the time.

Despite their enthusiasm to learn, Rahel said a number of obstacles can stand in the way of students attending classes, many of whom are single parents with dependent children and few relatives around.

Two women in embrace smile at camera

RNLC student, Hirut Gebremikiel with Rahel Davies

Two women smiling, the one in foreground wears a hijab and has henna on her hands,

Students like Salma and Hirut are well-supported through RNLC's wellbeing and welfare programs

Current student, Hirut Gebremikiel says the RNLC has made her life easier: ‘my English is much better now, even my confidence. Before I didn’t have any help to look after my daughter, but now I have childcare on four days so I can go to school.

River Nile even supported me with the FoodBank, and with driving lessons, which is so important for me because it's expensive. River Nile gave me five hours of driving lessons, I want to do more. I love the River Nile teachers and all staff, now I am not alone, said Hirut.

Students come from all over Melbourne to attend RNLC, and some travel from community detention centres in Broadmeadows and Lalor.

It’s quite a distance to travel but there’s nowhere else for them to go because they can’t enrol in any other government-funded organisations or other education centres, so they come to us,’ Rahel said.

As part of its Welfare Program, RNLC employs an onsite social worker to support students’ emotional health and wellbeing.

There can also be issues with family violence, so our social worker does a lot of work around that, to support students getting away from an abusive partner, and refers them to support organisations,’ Rahel added.

RNLC’s welfare team and volunteers also assist students to navigate Australian bureaucracy such as resolving immigration issues, using MyGov, accessing Centrelink, enrolling children in school, paying bills and citizenship applications.

To complement the Welfare Program, the RNLC obtained a 2022 Connected Communities Grant for a new Wellbeing Program, to promote learning, inclusion and social cohesion through group activities such as music, dance, art and swimming.

Students attend swimming lessons every Thursday at Melbourne City Baths, and recently went on excursions to Collingwood Children’s Farm and Eureka Skydeck.

Rahel said that the activities in the Wellbeing Program - being in a more social and less formal class setting - enable students to build close connections, which keep them coming back and engaged in their learning.

Large group of women, some of whom wear hijabs pose outside Sky Deck Melbourne

RNLC students, staff and volunteers recently enjoyed an excursion to Eureka Skydeck

‘Students look forward to those extra-curricular activities to break up the week. It really differentiates us from other adult education centres, that we can offer these types of relationship building activities, said Rahel.

The RNLC received a City of Melbourne Social Partnerships Program Grant in 2021, which has enabled it to work with the North Melbourne Language and Learning Centre.

‘They partially fund our Tuesday and Wednesday classes, help with the curriculum and teaching. It’s a great partnership,’ said Rahel.

As a non-government independent organisation, the RNLC runs entirely on philanthropic donations, grants, and volunteer power.

RNLC currently has around 20 volunteers who provide support in various ways.

‘We have volunteer in-class tutors who help students navigate using a computer, and others who guide them with job readiness, finding work, and provide advice on pathways to further study,’ Rahel said.

Other volunteers help collect food bank deliveries, unpack and distribute food to students, write grant applications, and develop fundraising initiatives.

We could really use some volunteers to help with driving lessons – helping students to get their driving hours up because we only have funding for 5 lessons per student, Rahel said. ‘We also really need a volunteer coordinator, to take charge and ensure the volunteers’ work continues to be meaningful.’

‘We’re looking for volunteers who are culturally competent, flexible, patient and understanding.’

If you’re interested in volunteering at RNLC, email with information about yourself, which area you would like to volunteer in, and attach a resume with two current referees.

The RNLC and River Nile School are co-located at 117 Capel Street, North Melbourne.