Wind in their SAILs

Sonia Nair in conversation with Sophie Tolich
Book in the grass
In May, Read and Rights discussed What is the What by Dave Eggers, a book which explores the human rights abuses in Sudan and the discrimination faced by the Sudanese Diaspora. Sonia Nair spoke to Sophie Tolich from SAIL (Sudanese Australia Integrated Learning) about how they are aiding Sudanese immigrants through literacy and community programs.

In 2001, five students responded to an advertisement and travelled to a community hall nestled within Melbourne University to offer their services as English tutors to a group of Sudanese students. Unbeknownst to the founders of the initiative, Anna Grace Hopkins and Matthew Albert, the program that they spearheaded would eventually expand into a nationwide endeavour with an official moniker – SAIL.

Otherwise known as the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning Program, SAIL is a volunteer-run, not-for-profit organisation that provides free English support and community services for Sudanese-Australian communities in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

“I have learnt from SAIL to appreciate what I have, instead of expecting more.”

Hopkins and Albert were catering to a burgeoning ethnic population, as the Sudanese community was both Australia’s and Victoria’s fastest-growing ethnic community at the time. By mid-2001, the program had 50 students, 20 volunteer tutors, funding and a name – the SAIL Program. By 2002, the program had developed to include services for adult members of the Sudanese community.

Fast forward more than a decade later and SAIL now comprises 500 volunteers with six campuses in Melbourne, two in Sydney and one in Perth. Volunteers range from accountants, letter writers and web designers to technicians, food coordinators and campus coordinators.

Overseeing Coordinator Sophie Tolich joined SAIL in 2009 after hearing Nik Tan – SAIL’s second Overseeing Coordinator – speak at a forum at Melbourne University. Emboldened by SAIL’s cause, Tolich made the pivotal decision to get involved because she resonated with the simple yet effective way SAIL sought to lend assistance to the Sudanese community.

“I was passionate about literacy development and I liked the thought of reading books with primary school students…”

“I was passionate about literacy development and I liked the thought of reading books with primary school students. I recalled that reading was an important and enjoyable part of my childhood,” Tolich says.

Tolich says SAIL recognises that a lower command of English can create barriers for many migrants and refugees, and so uses literacy programs to assist Sudanese students as they integrate into the wider Australian community.

“A good command of English and the ability to read English proficiently are essential to becoming familiar with opportunities and service providers in the Australian community,” Tolich says. She says a good command of English is equally important for adults as it is for children, as adults can consolidate their children’s learning at home.

Although literacy development is the cornerstone of SAIL’s program, it comprises six mini branches – not all of them focused on the teaching of English. SAIL, SAIL Senior and SAIL Junior provide English tutoring to Sudanese pre-schoolers, children, teenagers and adults. SAIL Xtend and SAIL About offer extra-curricular short courses, free excursions and camps to SAIL students, while SAIL Home Help helps Sudanese families in crisis.

From ballet, soccer and pottery lessons to outings such as AFL games, Luna Park and the Pussy Cat Dolls, SAIL Xtend and SAIL About offer myriad opportunities to help Sudanese people in their integrated learning within Australian communities.

“The outreach that can be achieved with technology and a committed team of volunteers never fails to amaze me.”

Tolich says these initiatives are equally as important as English lessons in fostering a sense of belonging amongst Sudanese people. “These programs provide our students with a space where they feel comfortable and confident. These programs are about social inclusion and being able to take part in learning and leadership activities which might not be available outside of SAIL.”

For Tolich, the most rewarding part of her volunteer position at SAIL is that every minute she spends giving to the program leads to a direct outcome for Sudanese students.

“I can affect outcomes for students simply by responding to emails, arranging meetings, signing cheques, facilitating donations, and doing simple things such as ensuring that our SAIL database is kept up-to-date.”

“The outreach that can be achieved with technology and a committed team of volunteers never fails to amaze me.”

“There’s a certain good humour, shared understanding and warmth which rests with the Sudanese community. I have learnt from SAIL to appreciate what I have, instead of expecting more.”

As Sudanese refugees constitute a significant part of the immigrant landscape in Australia, SAIL plays a crucial rule in providing accessible learning centres that not only cater to the growing needs of the Sudanese Diaspora in Australia but honour their issues, journeys, images and stories replete in the community.

If you wish to become a SAIL volunteer or learn more about the program, visit


Brolgas art work by Phoebe McIlwraith

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