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Muslim family tells of challenges navigating Tasmanian public school system

ABC News logo ABC News 7/02/2017 Carol Rääbus

Muhammad Wasim and Anjum Shanheen Khan with their sons, Zeerak Abdullah (far left) and Yahya Admed. © ABC News Muhammad Wasim and Anjum Shanheen Khan with their sons, Zeerak Abdullah (far left) and Yahya Admed. Five-year-old Yahya's first year of school in Tasmania was full of lessons — not only for him, but for his parents and his new school too.

Originally from Pakistan, Yahya arrived in Hobart five years ago with his parents; they have come to the island state so his father, Muhammad Wasim, can study at the University of Tasmania.

Yahya's mum, Anjum Shaheen Khan, said she spent a lot of time searching for the best school for her son, and ended up choosing one with a high academic ranking.

But she said she did not think about how diverse the school's population was.

"When I was selecting the school, there were so many reasons to select this school, but I missed this point that there are not many Muslim families there," she said.

Ms Khan and her family follow Islam and Ms Khan chooses to wear a niqab.

Anjum Shaheen Khan (right) said her family's faith and cultural background was not always understood. © ABC News Anjum Shaheen Khan (right) said her family's faith and cultural background was not always understood. "Most of the parents used to look at me like I was a real alien from Mars; sometimes their looks and stuff, I'm sorry to say, were crazy," she said.

"It makes life a bit tasking — and if it's tasking for me, what do you think [it's like] for a five-year-old? How tasking is life going to be for them?"

Ms Khan said the school worked hard to accommodate her family and their faith.

But at times, classroom activities — such as music and dancing — conflicted with the family's religious beliefs and this caused confusion for young Yahya, Ms Khan said.

Differences between the burka, niqab and hijab? © ABC News Differences between the burka, niqab and hijab? "He kept asking, 'Am I allowed to do this, am I allowed to do that? Can I eat this? Why can't I do that?'" she said.

The last term of the year was particularly trying for Ms Khan and her family as her son's class spent time doing activities around the theme of Christmas.

"We respect others celebrating [Christmas], but we are not permitted [under Islam to celebrate it]," Ms Khan said.

"Ideologically we cannot do this."

Ms Khan said she sometimes felt she was in a "blind alley" navigating an education system she was unfamiliar with.

"Sometimes we don't understand what the system demands from us and what we should do and where they are trying to place us," she said. Ms Khan said she wanted to talk about her experience to help all Tasmanian schools better understand how to help families like hers adjust.

"If they are welcoming to different cultures and different religions ... they should at least consider the families who are not allowed to [participate in] all of these things," she said.

"For their kids, there should be some alternative there."

All beliefs, religions welcomed

In a statement, the Tasmanian Department of Education said public schools recognise and value the diversity of all beliefs and religions.

"[Students] are accommodated with educational adjustments including alternate learning activities to ensure the skills outlined in the Australian curriculum are developed," the statement said.

"This includes alternative activities being provided at Christmas and Easter time for students from other faiths, recognising the increasing diversity of beliefs amongst the Tasmanian community.

"In relation to students of Muslim faith, it is common to have adjustments to uniform and sporting activities, as well as recognition of key holidays such as Ramadan, prayer rooms and separate eating times/spaces if required."

Ms Khan said she appreciated the work the school's principal and her son's teacher did put in last year, helping accommodate his needs where possible.

But some things remain a challenge.

For example, the school has no dedicated space for midday prayers. Yahya has had to pray near the washrooms when no other room has been free.

Nevertheless, Ms Khan's youngest son Zeerak will start kinder at that same school this year.

"I appreciate the school ... I appreciate the teachers," Ms Khan said. "I'm hopeful that it will be a bit more easy, in that I've already passed one year and I'm going to be taking things a bit easier for myself, for my kids.

"I'm going to be giving [them] a bit more ease ... and I'm expecting the same from the teachers and the school as well.

"I really want to ask one more thing — that giving a very warm welcome [to] people like us can be like giving us a bit of space to breathe in an easier way."

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