Schooling opens up brighter future for former refugee women

Issue: Volume 97, Number 12

Posted: 16 July 2018
Reference #: 1H9jbC

Learning English as an adult is hard work, especially for people who have never been to school before, but it is a challenge that former refugees are happy to take on at a school in Auckland.

It’s easy to assume everyone knows how to open and use a bank account, fill in forms and use email. But for many New Zealanders who arrive as refugees, some everyday processes are completely foreign and they need to adapt to new life skills as well as a new language. 

The Refugee Education for Adults and Families programme (REAF), at Selwyn College in Kohimarama, Auckland, provides classes for adult former refugees. The key to the success of the programme is the Carol White Family Centre, an early childhood centre opened in 2004 on-site, to support refugee families with preschool children to attend REAF.

The age range on the small campus is wide – the youngest are babes in arms and the oldest 83, but the adult students are all keen, particularly the female students. Their passion for education models their hopes for their children’s and grandchildren’s education.

Two thirds of the 120 students at REAF are women. Currently most are from Afghanistan and Myanmar and have young families.

“Some of our women have never been to school before but in some cases their children are becoming dentists and engineers. Our strength is our women,” says Margaret Chittenden, the Director of REAF.

A multi-generational experience

Children of other ages are studying at primary schools nearby, while many of the teens attend Selwyn College. So, often, education is a whole-family, multi-generational educational experience at Selwyn.

Margaret says women become empowered as their education progresses and they gain more confidence and skills in everyday conversational English, in a calm and supportive learning environment.

“Our women are usually quiet and shy when they arrive, and their faces are tight with worry and strain. War and conflict takes its toll. Many have had very hard lives, and some have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),” she says. “It is wonderful to see them begin to laugh, make friends and start to enjoy life again.”

Classes run each morning and students are grouped into five classes based on their English level. For the students unable to read and write in their first language, attending a school is a big challenge, but one that they are happy to meet. At the higher level students may have had a formal education and had opportunities to learn English.

“We are guided by the National Curriculum, so in English classes we teach the key competencies, such as using symbols, language and text, and managing self.”

Optional classes take place in the afternoons and include workplace English, patchwork, conversation and fitness classes.

REAF teaches numeracy and literacy but also acts as an advocate and mentor, and helps with goal setting and, if possible, promoting job and career opportunities.

“We are focused on building fully involved citizens in a broader sense, who have pathways to a better future, particularly for their families,” says Margaret.

“They also learn about using creative, critical and reflective approaches to learning. Those are real achievements for many of them, given that they were pre-literate or had low literacy skills when they arrived.”

From zero English to studying for a degree

Safia Aman is a graduate from REAF studying at Unitec in Auckland.

Safia was worried when she arrived in Auckland nine years ago to join her husband, as she couldn’t speak the language and felt so homesick.

Determined to master English, she studied night and day. Now she is fluent and listens to audiobooks while driving in her car because she loves the use of language.

Margaret says, “Safia was outstanding from the start and virtually ‘read the dictionary’.”

Safia is now studying Advanced English Level 5, and her next step will be studying for a qualification in education. Once she started with English, there was no stopping her and she began by reading children’s books in the library. She says, “Studying is like a chain. If the chain is broken, you’ll get left behind. But if you have education, you have choices and power over your life.”

She is married to a former Afghan refugee who was resettled in New Zealand in 2001 after being rescued from a sinking fishing boat by the ship Tampa, and they have a son.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:21 am, 16 July 2018

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