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'OORAH' DOWN UNDER

Marines visit aboriginal kids to connect with locals

Nancy Issac, 5, a Torres Strait Islander and U.S. Marine Sgt. Nathaniel Fowler take a break at Moulden Park Primary School in Australia's Northern Territory last month. Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes

DARWIN, Australia — Part of the six-month mission here for U.S. Marines involves spending time with disadvantaged aboriginal children in schools.

The Marines have been running physical training sessions at schools near Robertson Barracks — a base they share with Australian troops near the northern city of Darwin.

Many of the students are Aborigines or Torres Straight Islanders — the descendants of people who lived in Australia for tens of thousands of years before European colonization in the 18th century.

Indigenous Australians have struggled since others arrived — with introduced diseases, the loss of land and water rights, high rates of poverty and controversy over the adoption of their children by non-native parents. However, aboriginal culture remains vibrant and symbols such as the boomerang and didgeridoo are known worldwide.

During a recent visit to Moulden Park Primary School in Palmerston, a small Northern Territory Town, four members of Marine Rotational Force-Darwin wrestled with kids and helped get them ready for an outdoor sports day.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Morales, 24, of Anderson, Ind., weathered blows from a half-dozen youngsters during a pretend classroom fight, while Sgt. Nathaniel Fowler let one of the kids — Nancy Issac, 5, a Torres Strait Islander — try on his cover.

Leigh Munn, the Family Center coordinator at Moulden Park, said the Australian Red Cross, which helped organize the Marines’ visits, provides free breakfasts to many of the school’s indigenous students.

“The idea is having something in their tummies before they start school,” she said, noting that 83 percent of the kids attending are indigenous Australians.

Business is booming in the Northern Territory, thanks to billions that multinational companies are spending to extract natural resources, but the wealth hasn’t trickled down to everyone. Many Aboriginal families live in subsidized state-owned housing, Munn said.

The Marines’ visits are helping build the kids’ morale, she said.

“It’s great having someone who can say: ‘You can do something in life if you want to and you don’t have to follow that path of being on welfare,’” she said.

Leon Khan, an Aborigine from the Western Australian Noongar and Yamitji tribes, said he appreciated the Marines’ visits.

“It is good to see them involved with the community,” the father-of-seven said, adding that some of his relatives are in the Australian Defence Force.

Aboriginees and other races get along in the Northern Territory, Khan added.

“It is multicultural,” he said. “Here it is pretty laidback and everybody gets along pretty well.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Felicia Barrow, of El Paso, Texas, said she has been to Moulden Park Primary 20 times since she got to Australia a few months ago.

“The kids a have a lot of energy and have a lot to offer,” she said. “They are very smart kids.”

The aboriginal students seem to lack confidence and don’t talk much, she said.

“They say most of them don’t even live at home,” she said. “They bounce around from house to house so it is hard for them to get into any kind of school.”

Marine Rotational Force–Darwin spokeswoman 1st Lt. Savannah Moyer, who also visited the school, said community support is integral to the success of the Marine Corps wherever they are.

“The only way for the community to get to know the Marines is for us to get into the community,” she said.

robson.seth@stripes.com

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