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The Northern Territory opened its first Islamic school this year. How did it go?

It’s an oppressively humid Darwin day and seven early childhood students, gleaming from a sweaty excursion to the public library, bounce into a bright cool classroom at the Australian International Islamic College.
Bags are tucked into lockers and children scatter, hunting for their next activity. The classroom initially looks like any other in Australia, with colourful chairs, boxes of sensory toys and stationery – but look closer, and there are some differences.

In the tropical heat of the Northern Territory, where school uniforms are generally limited to shorts and T-shirts, these students don long sleeves and trousers, and the girls wear white hijabs.

Three children sitting on the floor play with toys

Children play with Lego at the Australian International Islamic College in Darwin. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

The wrath of a nesting plover (an aggressive bird) keeps the children indoors at playtime before clouds roll in with a deluge of rain, bringing the temperature down and clearing just in time for afternoon prayer.

Spilling from the three demountable classrooms, children file towards a corrugated iron shed at the heart of the school. This is the prayer room. They separate into gender groups; boys sit in a long line across the front, and the girls make up a much smaller group further back.

Seven year old Bonnisha and five year old Mahnoor sit quietly during school assembly at the Australian International Islamic College Darwin Campus

Seven-year-old Bonnisha and five-year-old Mahnoor sit quietly during school assembly. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

“Allahu Akbar”, the children begin … an Islamic phrase that translates as ‘God is great’.

Led by the school’s Imam, they recite the Salah, a prayer they will perform five times a day once they’ve passed adolescence.

A 40-year dream come true

The school of 35 pupils – spanning from age five to grade six – says it focuses on both educational and religious excellence, and is the culmination of a decades-long journey started by Sheikh Abdul Quddoos Al Azhari, the man last year.
After becoming Darwin’s first Imam in 1982, just after the Territory built its first mosque, he recognised the need for an Islamic school to stop families leaving Darwin.

But it’s been a hard-won project. The millions of dollars spent purchasing the land on the fringes of the city’s industrial area, and establishing the classrooms, have come entirely from Australia’s Muslim community.

Darwin Campus Australian International Islamic College

Clouds roll in over the Australian International Islamic College in Darwin. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

The school has been established under the umbrella of the Australian International Islamic College (AIIC) – an expanding Muslim conglomerate made up of four campuses across Queensland.

The annual fees range from $1,160 to $1,900 per child, depending on their grade.

“We follow the Australian curriculum (ACARA), so it’s all the same structure as any school with an added bonus of Islamic education as well,” early childhood teacher Vinsky Rzepka says.

A woman stands outside a demountable classroom

Teacher Vinsky Rzepka outside one of the demountable classrooms. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

Raised a Christian in Darwin, Ms Rzepka doesn’t follow Islam. Her first teaching role after university was at one of the AIIC’s other campuses on the Gold Coast, a school much like this one, but five years later she is back in Darwin helping the college establish its new campus.

“I didn’t even know there was such a dire need until moving back and being part of the community and seeing that there’s nothing here for Islamic students,” she says.

“I think parents are really really grateful that there is now something for their future, for their children as well.”

“I do feel like if they are in a more nurturing environment they will be better Muslims and better Australians.”

If they are in a more nurturing environment they will be better Muslims and better Australians.

– Vinsky Rzepka, Early childhood teacher

The school opened at the start of this year with a single shed for teaching and some portaloos. It now has three demountable classrooms and a toilet block. But the initial lack of infrastructure hasn’t been a deterrent for Othman Abdul Hamid and his wife Saidah Haron.

The medical practitioners have six children, including two university-aged daughters and a son in high school. Their three primary-aged children are all enrolled at the new school; Danial, 10, Elyas, eight, and Yusuf, five.

A man stands behind three children sitting at a kitchen bench.

Dr Othman Abdul Hamid helping his three youngest children get ready for school. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

“There are certain things that are hard to perform at normal school, for example, performing their prayers and what-not,” Dr Othman says.

While public schools had readily accommodated his children, he says there were sometimes challenges.

“Sometimes, being kids, they did feel a bit hesitant, they did feel a bit embarrassed to ask for all these things.”

A group of children in a room.

The school’s first graduation ceremony at Charles Darwin University. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

“When a child has a more nurturing environment to learn their religion then they can be more open-minded and more tolerant to other people and for me, that is what I want my children to grow up as.”

“Someone who is tolerant and, you know, appreciative of other religions and that can live together as a community.”

Three children wearing black academic gowns and mortar boards hold up certificates while standing next to a teacher holding a certificate.

Teacher Vinsky Rzepka with some of the students. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

Dr Othman believes his children now receive the best of both worlds.

“We live in Australia and we follow the Australian rules, and that’s what I want for them, to go that way and not be stereotyped as a Muslim.”

Booming Muslim community

In the 10 years to 2021, the size of the Territory’s Muslim population grew by 111 per cent, and it is tipped to grow even more.
The growth is admittedly from a low base – just 3,551 people currently practice Islam in the Territory according to – but 90 per cent of the community live in Darwin.
A group of people sitting at a graduation ceremony

Parents and friends celebrate the Darwin school’s first year. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

Many of the community are also young adults, and they come from a range of different countries.

“There is a notable peak in the 25-34 years age group, signifying early career residents, some of whom will be skilled migrants,” Charles Darwin University demographer Andrew Taylor says.

“Most Muslims living in the Territory in 2021 were born in Australia [24 per cent], followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and India.”

Across AIIC’s five campuses, there are students representing 37 different nations.

Side view of four girls wearing hijabs.

Families watch history in the making at the graduation ceremony. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

While the Darwin campus is still very new, seven-year-old Bonnisha, who is from an Australian-Indonesian family, thinks the school is a huge success.

“I love school because we can have fun and we can learn about different things,” she says.

“My favourite thing is art class. I like making boats out of paper. I made one for my grandma and Miss Rzepka.”

International ambitions

AIIC principal Andrew Taylor (a different Andrew Taylor to the demographer quoted above) has been managing the Darwin campus from Brisbane.
“We see our school as part of a broader mission to ensure that the Muslim faith can flourish around Australia, including Darwin,” he says.

“We’re applying to expand the school to have a secondary intake into the future.”

A group of people sitting in a lecture theatre.

Charles Darwin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Scott Bowman, National Grand Mufti of Australia Sheikh Abdul Quddoos Al Azhari, and AIIC principal Andrew Taylor at the school graduation. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

At the Darwin site, there are bold plans for expansive development, including the construction of a school and boarding facility and work to establish a new subdivision of 59 residential properties at two neighbouring blocks. But there are international dreams too.

“Our plan, in the long run, is to also offer an international education for Muslim students around the world at Darwin, because it is in close proximity to South East Asia,” Mr Taylor says.

“For us, it is a gateway to Australia.”

Seven year old Bonnisha attending the graduation at the Australian International Islamic College in Darwin

Student Bonnisha attending the school’s graduation. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

The school’s plans have drawn some opposition from one local resident, who has raised concerns about traffic safety and noise at the site, but they’re concerns the NT’s Development Consent Authority says it has adequately dealt with.

Overall, the school authorities say they have been humbled by the support the school has received.
“We live in a very diverse and pluralistic society, and Muslim Australians are no different from Irish Catholic Australians, or English Anglican Australians,” AIIC principal Mr Taylor says.

“So we don’t feel that there’s been any discrimination against the development of a Muslim school.”

Celebrating success

Travelling back to Darwin for the college’s end-of-year celebrations this month, Sheikh Quddoos addressed hundreds of parents, friends and students gathered at a lecture theatre at Charles Darwin University.
“This new Darwin Islamic college is a dream of community aspiration,” he says.

“They wanted to have a school for 40 years, they really struggled.”

A man, woman and young child sit in chairs in a lecture theatre.

Families celebrate the school’s first graduation ceremony. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

“In the absence of an Islamic school, the Islamic community became like a transit community, staying a few years and then moving down south,” he says.

“They really wanted to have an environment for their children, a safe caring environment, along with the Australian curriculum.”

“Now we have a memorandum of understanding with Charles Darwin University to bring international students [to Darwin].”

“We have a beautiful relationship with Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.”

A man with glasses and white hat and wearing a suit jacket

National Grand Mufti of Australia Sheikh Abdul Quddoos Al Azhari. Source: SBS News / Terry Royan

The Northern Territory Minister for International Education Ngaree Ah Kit says the school’s success is important for the region.

“Our current cohort of 3,100 international students [across the Territory] bring in more than $165 million a year.”

“They prop up our workplaces, they are contributing on the weekends, they are volunteering – so they are an integral part of our community.”

A woman taking a picture of a man standing next to a woman behind a young child holding a certificate.

NT minister Ngaree Ah Kit helps hand out merit awards to students. Source: SBS News / Laetitia Lemke

Ms Ah Kit acknowledges the need to invest more broadly in infrastructure to ensure the Territory’s growing Muslim community stays there. She says she is “undertaking a review of multicultural assets”.

“What we’ve got [in Darwin] is some of these ageing assets that have been there for a number of years that require a lot of maintenance, but also we have in Alice Springs a severe lack of spaces and cultural places of worship.”
The review is expected to be completed in 2023.
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