Empowering refugee students and communities

Issue: Volume 98, Number 18

Posted: 28 October 2019
Reference #: 1HA17X

More than half of the children at Nelson’s Victory School come from a refugee background.
This has seen the school develop a range of initiatives to empower students and their communities.

Nelson has been welcoming refugees since 2003, with most coming from Bhutan, Myanmar and more recently, Colombia.

Victory School is the most multicultural school in the region, with 50 per cent of its English Medium students coming from a refugee background.

These students represent 88 per cent of the school’s English language learners and the school holds whānau hui, with the help of interpreters, in four languages: Burmese, Nepalese, Chin Hakha and Spanish.

“These hui are usually run separately to ensure opportunities for clear two-way communication are provided. The impacts of trauma and cultural dislocation often present significant barriers to accessing the curriculum and participation in school culture,” says deputy principal and English language learner coordinator Glenda Rapley.

The Education Gazette visited the school during its annual Cultural Diversity Day, when students, teachers and family members dress in national costumes and share dance, cultural performances and food to celebrate the mix of the school community.

“We’re always working towards empowering the wider community, which is part of what we are doing today [Cultural Diversity Day],” Glenda says.

Relationship building

Victory School has seven bilingual liaison workers who play an essential role in forming a communication bridge between school, home and community. The bilingual team provides cultural advice, classroom curriculum learning support, help with developing resource materials and helps the school identify individual learning needs and ways to meet them.

“We do regular consultation with the community,” Glenda says. “I have regular hui with the bilingual workers – so they are feeding back to me, I’m feeding to the teachers and from the teachers back to them.”

She says it’s important to have the same end goals for all learners, but to also focus on the specific needs of English language learners using differentiated, more highly scaffolded instruction.

Strategies and initiatives

Victory School has a range of initiatives to help students and the refugee community.

These include:

  • a reading together programme funded by Ministry of Education to help parents support children’s reading at home
  • maths workshops to help parents support learning through playing games at home
  • an after-school programme for refugee background students from Year 5–8 to develop strong study habits a Computers in Homes programme:
    20 refugee families received training and computers last year
  • YIKES: a subsidised after-school programme for Years 1–8 on site
  • the completion of English Language Learner (ELL) qualifications so teachers can help their students learn a new language
  • the Victory community centre, with a community navigator and health and social services, which is on the school campus.

Lynda Duncan has been teaching at Victory School for 12 years and currently teaches a combined Year 4–6 class with Ashleigh Della Bosca. English language learners make up
85 per cent of their class.

Ashleigh says teaching a diverse group of students feels normal to them.

“We all know that everyone brings their culture to the class – that it is a big melting pot. The kids realise that too, in the way that they don’t hide who they are. They are proud of who they are and want to bring what they have to the classroom.”

Making connections

Lynda says it is important to visit whānau at home and go to cultural celebrations.

“It gives us insight,” she explains. “It provides you with connections – the families appreciate it so much.

“The benefits of teaching in an environment like this far outweigh the challenges and some of those challenges are horrendous, because some of our kids and their families have come from incredible trauma and they bring those experiences with them. Sometimes there is not that support in their first language to help them unpack and deal with those traumas,” she says.

Lynda and Ashleigh organise their classroom planning structure on Universal Design for Learning principles, which allows them to differentiate their class programme to meet the needs of all the students.

They have seen how their specific skills around teaching ELL students benefit the whole class. This approach ensures nobody feels they are out there by themselves, Lynda explains.

The teachers work hard to ensure that refugee children and parents feel heard.

“It’s little steps to help the parents see why, and agree or disagree and be able to voice that if they do. They might ask ‘where’s the handwriting?’ ‘Where’s the spelling?’ but we do a lot of open classrooms and we use Seesaw and Google Classroom (digital platforms to share learning) to help link our parents in visually and it keeps them feel connected,” Lynda explains.

Overcoming trauma

Ashleigh oversees the school’s government-funded study support centre (homework academy) for Years 5–8 English language learners, currently attended by 30–40 students. She has also recently begun volunteering with new migrant families, which has given her insights into the challenges that come with moving to a new country. These can include a range of health issues such as poor mental health, brittle bones and the effects of malnutrition.

Lynda says it’s important to help former refugee students know their own resilience. “We work to develop this resilience by explicitly teaching social, emotional and learning skills.

“Some days we do feel overwhelmed. Some days it’s really heartbreaking to think what people will do to one another and we see the results of that. When I first started teaching here, there was a particular group of children from Myanmar who had been separated from their parents and then reunited eight years later. Those little boys had lived in a refugee camp and when they came in were used to fighting for everything that they got,” she says.

Nearly all of the students from Bhutan/Nepal and Myanmar came to New Zealand from refugee camps. Ashleigh says the trauma which has affected their families may be historic, but the recent refugees from Colombia have experienced fresh trauma.

“We do receive the reports from Mangere, which gives us a heads-up about what we are dealing with. But then sometimes they are only in Mangere for six weeks and a lot of behaviours can be suppressed for that short amount of time,” she says.

Complex, rich and satisfying work

Both Lynda and Ashleigh say it is deeply satisfying to see former students get over their difficult starts in life.

“One of the things I love as well, is the desire from the children to make their parents proud,” says Ashleigh.

“They can so clearly articulate that their parents have done so much for them that they want to give back and look after their parents and set them up and that’s quite a mature mindset to have.”

Working with former refugees is exciting and enriching, says Lynda.

“These kids really care about us and we care about them and their families know that. And for all the heartbreak that is associated with that, it’s a privilege. We know we are making a real difference in their lives. They have an enthusiasm for life and learning and new things. Who wouldn’t want to do a job where you get to be with people like that every day,” she asks.

“Lots of our families are now established and they have really strong desires to make their lives better. We are seeing kids who we have taught, who are now working, or at university and taking those next steps. It’s hugely satisfying – this is the best job in the world.” 

Bilingual superstar

Pabitra Poudel has been a bilingual support worker at Victory School for two years. She and her husband Netra are originally from Bhutan, but lived as refugees in Nepal from the early 1990s until they came to New Zealand in 2013. They were both teachers in Nepal.

“My identity is Bhutanese, but I speak Nepali. We didn’t want to leave our own country, but when things went bad we couldn’t stay and so we were forced to leave,” she says.

Pabitra understands what former refugees go through as she, her husband and young daughter (now aged eight), have walked the same path to make a new life in Nelson. They initially felt very lonely and isolated.

Finding work has been challenging for the couple, as teaching in Bhutan is very different and they would have had to retrain to teach in New Zealand. Over a three-year period, Netra volunteered and studied to work in the mental health sector. He has recently got a job as a caregiver in a retirement village.

Pabitra says a large part of her job at Victory School is to be a bridge between parents and the school. A Nepali Messenger group has helped build relationships and communicate with parents, who are often too shy to visit the school.

Pabitra communicates cultural expectations and information to the school and works with children in the classroom, helping them translate and understand their schoolwork.

“When the children first come to New Zealand and go into the class, they don’t understand the instructions the teacher is giving because they don’t understand enough English. We just help them there, but they do feel lost and frustrated.

“Speaking in our own language, some parents will say, ‘we do not know any English and we don’t know what the child is reading so how can we help?’ We say that encouragement is important and visiting the teacher quite often with us is really important. If the parent is not able to help them at home so much, the teacher will give a little more focus on to that child,” she explains.

Children can take one to two years to settle, but once they understand English and know what to do, they are generally very happy as there is less discipline, more freedom and more technological learning than in Bhutan and Nepal.

“Making friends takes a while. At first, children tend to stay with people from their own country. But they can make friends with other cultures because they are playing and learning and they do group work together. The teachers also encourage children to be friendly to newcomers. The school is very good at helping like this,” Pabitra says. 

Nelson refugee backgrounds


The vast majority of refugees are Lhotshampas, one of Bhutan’s three main ethnic groups, who were forced to leave Bhutan in the early 1990s. More than 105,000 Bhutanese have spent 15 to 20 years living in UNHCR-run refugee camps in Nepal. Since 2008 a resettlement process has seen the majority of those living in the camps resettled in other countries.


Refugees originating from Myanmar have come through camps in Thailand or Malaysia. Burmese is the national language and those from Chin state have a variety of ethnicities and languages, including Hakha, Matupi and Zomi.


More than 800 Colombian refugees have been resettled in New Zealand since December 2007. An estimated 360,000 Colombians remain living as refugees, mostly in Ecuador, after being forced out of their homes by a civil war raging since the 1960s, which has displaced millions.

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

Posted: 9:35 am, 28 October 2019

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