Language key for refugees
Wed, 20 Jun 2012 2:45p.m.
By James Fyfe
For those fleeing homelands where war and persecution is prevalent, being accepted as a refugee into New Zealand doesn't always mean the end of their problems.
Often, their new life brings its own challenges and hardships.
“When we came to New Zealand we appeared very foolish, very, very foolish, because my English is very weak” says Fatima Al-Hilwa, an Iraqi refugee who has been in New Zealand for around two years.
"[People] treat me as a foolish woman even though I am educated,” she says. “They look at me and think, 'She is a refugee, maybe she doesn’t understand.'”
Ms Al-Hilwa is one of around 750 refugees that New Zealand accepts every year under the Government’s Refugee Quota Programme, which is being celebrated today as part the UN's World Refugee Day.
She says that one of the hardest things of starting a new life here has been navigating the labyrinthine world of Work and Income, Housing New Zealand and endless hospital appointments, with her limited English.
“If we speak general English, it’s okay ‘go, come, eat’, that is very easy. But specialist subject, specialist situation is very difficult,” she says.
Forty-seven-year-old Joseph Thang Man, a refugee from Burma, says he too found daily life almost impossible without a strong command of the local language.
“When I first came I was very confused,” he says. “Everything was different.”
He says he never studied English back home in Burma because, in his words, "When would I ever need it?"
And just like Ms Al-Hilwa, confusion and misunderstandings were the norm.
“I thought, I can’t stay like this – I have to study because I am facing trouble,” he says.
Six years later, Mr Thang Man communicates in his adopted language with ease, and credits learning English with helping him get full-time employment at a panel-beating shop in west Auckland.
After realising the importance of furthering his education, Mr Thang Man enrolled in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course to improve his communication skills. He was then accepted into a Certificate in Vehicle Refinishing Technology course at Manukau Institute of Technology, where he studied alongside native speakers.
Because of his lack of previous study of English, Mr Thang Man says he attacked the task of learning it with a vengeance.
He says class time was not enough for him and he studied through morning-tea and lunch breaks too.
“Nobody studied like I did. I wrote words on my arms so I could study in the shower. Before I would take a shower I would write a sentence on my arm so I could learn it in the shower.”
Today Mr Thang Man is chairman of the Burmese Fellowship at his local church, where he works with other refugees from his homeland. He describes himself as “happy” and says he wants to help others who are in the position he was in when he first arrived in the country.
But Ms Al-Hilwa says for her full-time study is not an option due to her poor health.
She says four years of living in severe conditions in a refugee camp means she must attend regular hospital appointments and that travelling by bus is difficult for her.
She craves learning English, but without being able to easily leave her home it is hard.
“Because I am on the sickness benefit I am obliged to stay in the house,” she says.
“I cannot go to study English, because I go every week to the hospital but I still need to learn English. I can catch English by talking and if I hear some words from anyone I want to catch them. Especially I listen to the TV to learn - it is very important for me.”
In the meantime Ms Al-Hilwa says her hope for the future lies in her sons’ success.
“I want my sons to be happy in their new country. I encourage them and follow them and give them my time to get this,” she says.
“I don’t want them to have the same problems as us – that in two years or 30 or 40 years they say, ‘Go out, you are still a refugee.’"
For information on volunteering with refugees throughout New Zealand visit www.refugeeservices.org.nz
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20/06/2012 5:07:38 p.m.
New Zealanders want to give refugees a hard time but its great to hear their side of their new struggle in life to try and become good Kiwis
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