Life saving lessons: multicultural leaders urge education in ‘second language’ of water safety after latest drownings

<span>Marwa Hashim (left) and Nirsha Haris drowned at Kurnell in Sydney on Monday after being swept off rocks by a ‘freak wave’.</span><span>Composite: supplied</span>
Marwa Hashim (left) and Nirsha Haris drowned at Kurnell in Sydney on Monday after being swept off rocks by a ‘freak wave’.Composite: supplied

As Supt Joe McNulty explained the circumstances behind the drowning of two women in Sydney, he said they hadn’t come from a “swimming background”.

That meant someone who was not a strong swimmer, or “wasn’t from a culture that taught you to swim early”, he explained.

McNulty was speaking after two women drowned on Monday after being swept off the rocks near the Yena Road picnic spot at Kurnell.

Related: ‘You can’t teach most people to spot rips’: can AI stop Australia’s unpatrolled beach drownings?

Marwa Hashim, 35, and Nirsha Haris, 38, were members of the Malayalee community, an ethnic group from Kerala in south India.

In the past 10 years, people born outside Australia accounted for 34% of drownings , with an overwhelming majority of them being men. That piece of data does not count the number of second- and third-generation migrant deaths.

The drownings this week have sparked conversations on water safety in migrant communities, and if more can be done to protect them.

‘Lack of awareness’

According to McNulty, a “freak wave” crashed on to the women where they were standing, hitting them like a “ton of bricks” before sucking them out into the ocean.

A third woman, Marwa’s sister, Roshna, was also swept off the rocks but managed to make her way back on to the shore with the help of bystanders.

The spot has a small sign on the grass, behind the rocks the women were walking along, warning of dangerous waves and slippery rocks. It is not translated into any other language.

Shahir Kaithal from the Australian Malayalee Islamic Association said his community had been traumatised by the incident.

“We’ve tried to stay positive, we have had to come together after this very traumatic incident. We’ve worked hard to get their families here in Sydney for the funeral, there are people coming from India, Canada, Dubai and the Philippines.”

“We are pulling through, but dealing with severe trauma,” he said.

“We’ve cried every day, and while we are recovering, we are concerned for the mental health of the community. We are providing them as much support as possible.”

Their deaths came only two weeks after two Nepali men rock fishing in a nearby location drowned after also being swept away.

The two men, aged 25 and 22, were not wearing lifejackets along a section of the coastline that requires them to do so.

We just collectively haven’t done a good job of educating migrants about the hazards they face on beaches

Prof Rob Brander

In the past year, rock-fishing deaths have jumped by 50% in New South Wales, reaching nine. In the past five years, 42 deaths occurred while rock fishing in the state, 81% of them among people born overseas.

Anil Pokhrel from the Non-Resident Nepali Association said the two rock fishers who drowned were from rural Nepal, and that coming from a landlocked country that doesn’t have a swimming culture like Australia makes a huge difference.

Related: Australia’s drowning crisis: why rescuers often perish trying to save family members

“A lot of people who come here, they are not aware of ocean culture, they don’t understand the dangers, they don’t know about reefs, tides or waves,” he said.

“There is a lack of awareness what they are often dealing with, and that leaves them in danger.”

He said many from the Nepali community are delighted by access to Sydney’s famous beaches, and love going swimming, regardless of their ability.

“We are not used to having beaches and oceans, and we get fascinated by them, we love going and taking photos, fishing, doing anything there. But we don’t have the knowledge to do it properly.”

His organisation runs water safety and swimming lessons over the summer, and while he said he does work with authorities such as Royal Life Saving Society Australia, more outreach needs to be done.

“People don’t look at online materials, they aren’t reading newspapers or watching YouTube videos on water safety. It needs to be a realistic strategy, that in particular targets young people.”

Lost in translation

Royal Life Saving Society distributes educational material online, particularly after the Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030 identified multicultural communities as a key area to focus on to reduce drownings.

But advocates say more funding is needed to reach communities that wouldn’t normally engage with this kind of content, and to teach adults to swim.

Sarah Scarce, founding director of the Aqua English Project, describes some of the barriers as being about language, arguing that Australians have a “second language” when it comes to swimming and water safety.

“A lot of the words we have in and around swimming don’t have adequate translations in other languages. One that can be confusing, for example, is treading water,” she said.

The Acqua English Project has been running water safety and swimming lessons for migrant adults in Queensland since 2006, helping more than 2,000 people a year.

“We go back to basics, focusing on things like safe entry, blowing bubbles, floating and treading water. What’s often written on brochures is that if you get in trouble just raise your hand, but that requires you to tread water.”

“Even things like watching your children in the water, that requires a parent to know how to swim if they need to rescue their children. It’s important that we teach these basic skills not just to children, but to adults.”

Related: The Australian beach tragedy that inspired a global rip safety movement

Prof Rob Brander from the UNSW Beach Safety Research Group said a lot more work was required.

He said signs were “useless” because they are usually only in English and aren’t big enough to be registered by beach visitors.

“I live near a beach that is frequented by migrants, and its great to see, but they’re usually in there fully clothed, but usually without an understanding of the yellow and red flags, of rips and currents, and just how dangerous waves can be.”

“And whose fault is that? It’s not their fault. We just collectively haven’t done a good job of educating migrants about the hazards they face on beaches.”