Inclusive approach helps former refugees feel at home

Issue: Volume 97, Number 22

Posted: 6 December 2018
Reference #: 1H9pXF

Arriving in New Zealand as a former refugee is often a shock to the system and being introduced to schooling for the first time can be a big challenge. For two years a primary school in Dunedin has been helping former refugee students settle into their new lives.

Carisbrook School was one of the first schools in Dunedin to receive former refugee students when the city became a new settlement area in 2016. Currently, most of the 36 former refugee students at Carisbrook School are from Syria.

Principal Ben Sincock says that the school provides a wraparound service when students first arrive and takes a holistic approach to supporting them.

After trialling a few different approaches, the school now provides an intensive language programme with groups of students receiving daily sessions for six months rather than spread out over the whole year.

“We learnt it’s more effective to group students so they have five sessions a week instead of a weekly individual session.

“Because many students arrive with zero English, it’s better to withdraw them and provide this intensive support. While time-consuming, it’s so rewarding seeing the students engaged in learning.”

Celebrating diversity and encouraging inclusion

Ben says one way of making former refugees feel at home and valued is to celebrate their diversity.

The school has a programme of support for all teachers to ensure they are culturally responsive to the needs of all students, not just former refugees. They’ve recently completed professional learning and development on culturally responsive practice. Although the initial focus was on a Pacific Island context, Ben says a lot of what they learnt is applicable to all cultures in the school.

Wherever possible, teachers celebrate diversity in authentic learning contexts in the classroom. For example, if looking at celebrations and festivals, the learning and teaching is enriched by the unique backgrounds, cultures and experiences of the students.

Recently, some Year 7 and 8 Syrian students brought their parents to their food technology class to share the preparation and cooking techniques they use for food.

Once the new food technology room is complete, Ben plans to have cultural evenings so members from different cultural groups can provide opportunities for other families in the community to learn how to cook food that celebrates their culture.

The school also assessed their school canteen and food provisions to ensure halal options were available and undertook a visual audit to see if it reflected its community.

Ben says “It can also be the little things that count. We had a week’s warning they were arriving so we quickly put up the Syrian flag in the foyer of the school next to the other flags. Our Syrian families were delighted when they arrived to see they had already been thought of.

“We’re planning to make changes – from a big welcome sign in different languages to paintings on the courts with different games and activities, and including numbers and words in multiple languages.

“I think because we are a very inclusive multicultural school, the transition of former refugee students into the school and into our community has been easy.”

Supporting families too

Since families usually arrive with very little, the school provides uniforms and stationary free of charge (which they also do for other students requiring support). 

They frequently liaise with families through bilingual support workers to go over any concerns or issues and to ensure they feel welcome. Angela Watts, the refugee programme coordinator for the cluster, also plays a critical role engaging with families and students. Ben says they were very lucky that Angela had recent experience working in the Middle East and some knowledge of the Arabic language.

He recalls how initially some parents didn’t want their children participating in swimming lessons. “Once we teased it out, the concern was about female students not being suitably attired so we were able to remove this barrier by providing long sleeve rash tops.”

The school also translates all information for parents into Arabic, including weekly school newsletters and also reviews community materials for other agencies and organisations, since Google Translate can only go so far!

Carisbrook School also hosts the Computers in Homes programme which provides training and support in digital skills, as well as a laptop or desktop computer and subsidised internet for participants upon completion. The school also assists with transport to the school and staffing so parents can bring their kids.

Ben says, “Once the initial resettlement phase is over, it can be quite isolating for parents, so it’s great they can connect back with family or friends overseas.

“Another benefit of this programme is that we’re now at the stage of providing employment for some of our former refugee parents. They have become our childcare providers or instructors for the programme.”

Student profile – Rimaa

Rimaa, from Syria, is in Year 7 at Carisbrook School. She has attended school before and lived in Lebanon for three years before coming to New Zealand. She sometimes helps younger former refugee students by translating for the teacher. Rimaa’s cousin Faeza also attends the school.

Of her first day, Rimaa says, “I was very excited; however, I felt scared when I saw Mr Sincock!” She hasn’t been scared since that first day and has enjoyed camping and swimming for the first time.

When she grows up, Rimaa says she wants to be a teacher and wants to come back to teach at Carisbrook School. 

The Refugee Resettlement Dunedin Education Approach

In March 2015, Dunedin was announced as refugee resettlement destination. A year later, the first intake arrived.

To best support the new arrivals, the education sector in Dunedin developed a collaborative model – the Refugee Resettlement Dunedin Education Approach.

Together, early learning services, schools, tertiary providers, agencies such as Red Cross, employers and the Ministry are working together to support the resettlement of former refugee students.

The steering group is led by the sector and chaired by Ben Sincock, principal of Carisbrook School. He says, “The model has definitely been a team approach not just within schools but across agencies as well.”

The model has now grown to 30 schools and supports 203 former refugee students in Dunedin. 


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:43 pm, 6 December 2018

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts