Migrant Communities Need Swimming Lessons To Help Save Lives This Summer

"Having water safety and swimming skills aren't seen as a need. It's seen as a luxury."

Refugee Swim

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Just three days into the new year, father of two Fahim Wakili tragically drowned while fetching his son’s soccer ball from a lake in Sydney’s Mount Annan. The 38-year-old Afghan refugee couldn’t swim and went straight under, according to witnesses.

“To lose a friend in such a sudden and preventable way — that’s the worst feeling,” said Basim Alansari, a friend of Wakili’s. “Leaving his kids and wife behind, it’s very difficult, very very difficult.”

“It’s very important for us to honour the people that we’ve lost. We need to use these cases to raise awareness in the community,” he told Junkee.

Wakili’s death come weeks after 14-year-old Anwar Wissam Latif also drowned in a Western Sydney lake in December. “He really didn’t know how to swim,” Latif’s uncle Salim Almsodni told the Daily Telegraph. “Most refugee children don’t know how to swim when they come here, and they don’t get taught.”

The Australian Water Safety Council identified migrants, international students, and tourists to be a priority population in their drowning prevention national strategy released last year. Research from James Cook University in April determined that while the numbers are still high, migrants are thankfully not over-represented in Australia’s recent drowning statistics — potentially due to COVID border restrictions halting overseas visitors.

However, the academics acknowledged unique considerations must be factored in by policy makers, including tailoring messages for recent arrivals and long-term migrants to prevent any further deaths. “Social determinants of health, such as cost, language and cultural and religious factors have been identified as barriers for migrants in accessing health services,” they said in their final report.

Alansari told Junkee that providing inclusive services and environments to teach kids and adults how to swim is a vital solution.

“For example, we know a lot of migrant communities are Muslim, or part of a religion practising modesty. So girls and boys mixing in swimming pools can be an issue for a lot of families. That prevents a lot of families from especially sending girls to swimming classes,” he said.

Multilingual resources, cultural competency training, and culturally appropriate programs would also help shift perceptions this summer, said Alansari. “Having water safety and swimming skills aren’t seen as a need. It’s seen as a luxury, or nice to have, ‘something if I had time, I would do’.”

“We need to work with community leaders and organisations to run courses on swimming, and make sure its something people can hear about,” he said.