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.
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. 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
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.
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.
“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.
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 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 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.
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.
“Sometimes, being kids, they did feel a bit hesitant, they did feel a bit embarrassed to ask for all these things.”
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.”
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
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.
Across AIIC’s five campuses, there are students representing 37 different nations.
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.
“My favourite thing is art class. I like making boats out of paper. I made one for my grandma and Miss Rzepka.”
“We’re applying to expand the school to have a secondary intake into the future.”
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.
“For us, it is a gateway to Australia.”
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.
“So we don’t feel that there’s been any discrimination against the development of a Muslim school.”
“They wanted to have a school for 40 years, they really struggled.”
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.”
“We have a beautiful relationship with Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.”
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.
“They prop up our workplaces, they are contributing on the weekends, they are volunteering – so they are an integral part of our community.”
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”.
Read More:The Northern Territory opened its first Islamic school this year. How did it go?