Empowering former refugee and migrant families

Issue: Volume 102, Number 15

Posted: 16 November 2023
Reference #: 1HAdkM

Enabling effective integration into the education system in Aotearoa New Zealand for ethnic and migrant families is the focus of vital mahi being carried out across the country, fostering a sense of belonging within learning communities and beyond.

Jamila Slaimankhel (Afghan Learning Community Hub coordinator) and Noeleen van de Lisdonk (Fatimah Foundation service manager).

Jamila Slaimankhel (Afghan Learning Community Hub coordinator) and Noeleen van de Lisdonk (Fatimah Foundation service manager).

Former refugees can ease into life and education in Aotearoa in their own time, with the support of learning community hubs. In Auckland’s Ōtāhuhu, a tight-knit community is sharing experiences, learnings, and support, through the Afghan Learning Community Hub. One of 35 such hubs across the motu, it is providing a bridge between cultures and schools and agencies, as are the individuals involved in leading them.

Jamila Slaimankhel is one of those whose multi-agency work is creating such a bridge. The pharmacist, business owner and mother of five has used her channelled grief into powering her leadership of the Afghan Learning Community Hub for the benefit of others. Her father Hashim was killed by a suicide bomber on a visit to her homeland after he returned there to assist others in following his family’s path to safety in New Zealand.

“My dad was well-regarded in the Afghan community. He was a very community-minded person. He was visiting Afghanistan when he was the victim of a suicide bomber at a market.

“Education was very important to him. He wanted us to have a good education and to further our own knowledge. I’m grateful for the education me and my siblings were able to have.”

Jamila acts as a support to other former Afghan refugees, enabling them to access and engage in quality education here in New Zealand.

“I am a bridge between various groups, organisations, and the Afghan community. Education is very, very important and a lot of our parents come here wanting their children to have better opportunities. The opportunities for girls in education are not good in Afghanistan. My father believed that there should be these opportunities for us girls.

“I like the saying, ‘If you educate a mother, you educate a nation.”

Education workshops

Jamila moved to New Zealand in the 1990s with her parents and her seven siblings, after her father had first paved the way on exploratory visits in the late 1980s. She studied for a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Auckland before a Master’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Otago.

As well as running her own pharmacy business, and being the mother of five, Jamila now helps support Afghan refugees to settle in Aotearoa. The Afghan Learning Community Hub is one branch of her mahi.

“I work with many agencies, such as the Ministry of Education, Te Whatu Ora and the Fatimah Foundation, to provide the resources for my community.

“With the learning hubs, we establish learning opportunities by holding education workshops for parents in partnership with community groups at accessible locations. Participants take public transport, so that’s always an important consideration,” says Jamila.

At Ōtāhuhu Library, 20 Afghan mothers have gathered to learn the basics of The New Zealand Curriculum. Curriculum leads Renu Sikka and Viv Carr are tasked with sharing “what teaching and learning look like in New Zealand and how you can support your children in their learning.”

Ministry of Education curriculum leads, Renu Sikka and Viv Carr.

Ministry of Education curriculum leads, Renu Sikka and Viv Carr.

Outlining the school structure, curriculum and social conventions, the interactive workshop is translated throughout for those who are not yet able to speak English.

Participants explore the levels of the school system, helping them to determine and gain an understanding of which level their children are at. Individuals’ early experiences of the New Zealand education sector are discussed, providing chances to ask questions, offer support and increase knowledge.

One woman told the group her three children had all begun learning at school here in Aotearoa. She was pleased that her eldest could now read and write in English and was enjoying making art and had recently come third in her school’s running race.

“My youngest daughter can now write her own name. She can say numbers, too, and she has started reading one or two books a night. She helps me learn to read English too!”

Another mother was proud to share that her two daughters had been accepted into university; one to study medicine, the other midwifery.

Having three happy primary school children was a source of pride and joy for another mother: “They are happy with their learning, and so my husband and I are happy too.”

Support to thrive

There is also a focus on child and youth wellbeing within the New Zealand education sector, within an overall vision of providing a world-class education and honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Beyond such workshops for parents, the Learning Community Hub provides information to former refugee families on a range of topics to aid settlement, for example, healthy eating, and how to adapt recipes from their homeland to include local ingredients for school lunchboxes. Information on holiday programmes, emergency accommodation, road safety and technology support and more, helps parents and children with their integration into life in Aotearoa.

“This is a high-need community, with the majority being refugees. We find out their needs and we develop our programmes to suit these needs,” says Jamila.

Understanding and acceptance

The need to provide a safe, nurturing environment in which learners from minority ethnic communities can thrive is keenly felt across the motu.

In Canterbury, the needs of young Muslim learners are being considered with the introduction of targeted resources. There are thought to be around 5,000 people of Islamic faith in the region, and the educational resources serve as a tool for building bridges of understanding and acceptance among the wider community.

Research indicates that bullying, lack of respect, isolation, and discrimination are common challenges Muslim children face when they enter the school environment, with many Muslim tamariki in Aotearoa having reported bullying.

Designed to help teachers and learners understand Muslim culture, promote inclusivity, eliminate bullying, bias and discrimination nationwide, these free resources are a first in New Zealand.

They emerged from a collaboration between An-Nur Childcare Centre in Christchurch, Tātai Aho Rau Core Education, and South Island funder, Rātā Foundation and include a downloadable guide for whānau, an infographic for kaiako and the classroom, videos for kaiako and parents to help their children to transition to school, and an animated video.

Dr Hana O’Regan, tumu whakarae of Tātai Aho Rau, says discrimination towards the Muslim community, like many other minority groups in our country, often stems from ignorance.

“This generally derives from a lack of understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of cultural differences. It is critical for Muslim tamariki in our rohe to see, feel and hear that they have a place in their new classrooms and feel culturally supported to transition positively through their education journey,” she says.

Some participants at the Afghan Learning Community Hub workshop at Ōtāhuhu Library.

Some participants at the Afghan Learning Community Hub workshop at Ōtāhuhu Library.

Sense of belonging

Dr Maysoon Subhi Salama ONZM is the co-founder and manager of An-Nur Childcare Centre. She says the transition to primary school is a critical milestone for Muslim children.

She explains that it sets the foundation of their educational journey, provides an opportunity to integrate their Islamic values and cultural identity into their educational experience, and ensures they feel a sense of belonging in the school environment.

“The resources developed through this project will equip new entrant teachers with the cultural competencies needed to meet Muslim students’ and their families’ unique needs.

“Our vision is to see Muslim children and their families confidently navigating the transition to primary school, feeling a sense of pride in their faith and culture, and excelling academically within an environment that embraces diversity, fosters understanding, and promotes equality.”

Chief executive of Rātā Foundation Leighton Evans hopes the resources created through this initiative will catalyse change, inspire educators, parents, and students to embrace diversity, cultivate understanding and build a stronger, more inclusive society.

“The project emphasises the significance of embracing diverse ethnicities in our communities, and the aim of creating equitable outcomes for our young learners so they can thrive,” he says.

Tyla Harrison-Hunt, Christchurch City Councillor and parent of a three-year-old, says the biggest challenge for the Muslim community is keeping hold of tradition and learning how to live in a new country with different cultural norms.

“As a city councillor and a parent of a bicultural treasure, we think it’s important that our daughter, and all tamariki, get the support they need to feel empowered and proud in their culture,” says Tyla.

“This resource will help our children express their cultural values and provide teachers with the appropriate resource to lead in an environment that allows our Muslim whānau to feel comfortable to be themselves in a new environment and celebrate their identity.”

Pathways and opportunities

At the senior side of the school spectrum, supporting attendance and engagement of former refugee and migrant ākonga is the aim of a secondary school initiative in Tamaki Makaurau.

The Refugee and Migrant Ākonga Study Pathways and Careers Event in September.

The Refugee and Migrant Ākonga Study Pathways and Careers Event in September.

Aimed at Year 10–13 ethnic refugee and migrant ākonga who are at risk of disengagement without support with study pathways, the initiative has been co-designed and implemented by the Mount Roskill Collective to help provide direction and guidance to students.

“The initiative is aimed at improving their motivation to attend school by increasing their understanding of pathways and the support they could receive while in school to achieve their education aspirations,” says Ministry of Education team leader community partnerships, Mastura Abd Rahman.

“Being new to New Zealand, these ākonga and their families face barriers understanding education trajectory and are reported to have received less than desired support and engagement in subjects advice and guidance as well as in student self-development and wellbeing.”

An in-person event was held at the Dew Drop Events Centre in Tāmaki Makaurau as one of the region’s ‘Regional Response Fund’ initiatives to support attendance and engagement.

Encouraging refugee and migrant ākonga to remain engaged at school and prepare well for post-secondary future by seeking appropriate support from teachers and the school community was a key aim, says Mastura.

389 ākonga from refugee and migrant backgrounds attended the event with 21 schools participating. The feedback from students and teachers was overwhelmingly positive.

She says the need for the initiative was supported by recent Education Review Office statistics.

“More than one in four secondary learners from ethnic communities report that teachers’ recommendations for their course selection are influenced by ethnicity. Both learners and whānau from ethnic communities find NCEA confusing, and a fifth of learners do not feel supported in choosing subjects or career pathways.”

Educating and empowering ākonga to better understand study pathways and make informed decisions about NCEA subjects and credits was an important factor, says Mastura.

While helping students onto the post-secondary path of their choice and inspiring them to be enthused about their future learning and work opportunities was the overarching aim, broader self-development and self-care strategies were were also presented at the event to help maximise the possibilities of these refugee and migrant ākonga reaching their own goals.


Supporting the transition to school for Muslim children – Tātai Aho Rau Core Education website(external link)

Education For All Our Children: Embracing Diverse Ethnicities – ERO(external link)

How learning hubs empower migrant families in Aotearoa

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:45 am, 16 November 2023

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