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Wednesday, April 6, 2016, 15:59

Asylum-seekers' fear of sea soothed by surfing program

By Associated Press
Asylum-seekers' fear of sea soothed by surfing program
In this, March 23, 2016, photo, asylum seeker Amin (center) and fellow class mate Kumar catch a wave during a surfing class on Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

They gather under the blazing sun and blue skies of an Australian beach, looking out at the water that once symbolized so much misery: Terrifying boat trips marked by sickness and death and the constant dread that their own lives might be nearing the end. But today, the sea will become their unlikely savior.

For these five asylum-seekers, a novel program introducing them to the iconic Aussie sport of surfing is helping to transform both their feelings toward the ocean and their lives and allowing them, at least for a brief time, to forget the pains of the past.

"We know that getting into the ocean and surfing makes everybody feel good," says Brenda Miley, surf school director at Let's Go Surfing, which is providing the lessons. " ... I just think it's a win-win because it helps build confidence, they learn some skills, they learn about being a local Aussie."

There is a rush of nervous laughter and chitchat as the men file into the Let's Go shop at Sydney's famed surf haven, Bondi Beach. Inside, instructors Conrad Pattinson and Will Bigelow demonstrate how to put on wet suits.

Amin, an asylum-seeker from Iran, flexes his muscles under the neoprene and chuckles. He has been urging his fellow Surfing Without Borders buddies along all morning, eager to get on a surfboard for the first time. But he admits his excitement is tinged with anxiety.

Like the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who have fled to Australia in recent years, Amin's trip involved a harrowing ocean crossing that began in Indonesia, where smugglers pack migrants into rickety boats that frequently break down or capsize. Those who survive the journey are often scarred by it.

Amin's memories of that trip and the relentless seasickness that came with it are dark. Today, though, he hopes to forget all that.

Down on the beach, Pattinson and Bigelow give the men a pep talk.

They explain how the current works and the different parts of the surfboard.

"We're going to make a plan to keep it safe and get heaps and heaps of waves," Bigelow says.

Amin eyes the turquoise water, where the swells are gaining strength. He asks how far out they will go. "Not deep," Bigelow assures him.

The students practice standing on the boards from the safety of the sand. Pattinson warns them that if they don't use proper form, they'll lose their balance and "do a helicopter." At this, he circles his arms wildly. The men crack up.

Finally, it is time to hit the water. The men slide onto their boards and paddle toward a sandbar where the waves are breaking. There, the instructors help maneuver the students' boards into the proper position. And when Amin is ready, Pattinson pushes him forward onto his first wave.

Amin presses himself up with his hands, pops into a brief, unsteady crouch and ...


"Fell down, no good!" he says. Undeterred, he wipes his face, grabs his board and paddles back out.

One by one, the men make their first shaky attempts as Pattinson and Bigelow whistle and cheer. Flanked by other student surfers, they are largely indistinguishable from the rest of the rookies: Their hips wobble, their arms "do the helicopter", they occasionally collide, and they belly flop more than they stand. But more than anyone else in the water, they laugh.

This kind of joy is exactly what the staff at Settlement Services International hoped to achieve when they launched the surf program last year. They knew their clients were grappling not only with the trauma associated with their boat journeys and the wars and persecution they had fled, but also with the anxiety of settling into a new country.

Asylum-seekers' fear of sea soothed by surfing program
In this, March 23, 2016, photo, five asylum from left, Roohollah, Amin, surf instructor Conrad Pattinson, Uthayakumar, Mahdi, Kumar and surf instructor Will Bigelow practice standing on their surfboards while still on the sand during a surfing class on Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

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