Maria Hayward manages the education team at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland, liaising with the Ministry of Education, AUT, the Tertiary Education Commission and various other agencies.

The centre is home to all United Nations quota refugees for the first six weeks of their new lives as New Zealanders. This period is spent assessing their needs, which can be varied and complex, given the nightmare they’ve left behind.

And of course, it’s also about giving the new arrivals an understanding of what it means to live in New Zealand, not simply offloading them as soon as they arrive in a strange country where they very likely don’t speak the language. In the case of school-age young people, it’s easy to imagine how potentially terrifying it must be to attend school in this country of foreign customs and etiquette, particularly given that there’s every chance they’ve not previously had any education in their homeland, at least in the formal sense as we know it in New Zealand. Hayward says that in many cases the issues felt by refugee families and their children are much deeper than is visible on the surface.

“It’s understandable why settling in a country like New Zealand could be a hugely daunting prospect for refugee students and their families, as friendly and welcoming as we Kiwis like to think we are. They have to start again culturally, and somehow acquire all the instinctual etiquette New Zealanders don’t even have to think about; they have to scramble to somehow recover the years of education their peers continue to build on at school; and they’re often doing all that via the medium of a language they’re nowhere near mastering.

Confidence is crucial

Hayward believes that a key issue for many refugee children is confidence, or rather a lack of it, particularly in school. While Kiwi children aren’t shy about letting their teachers know that they don’t understand, or they need help, in some cultures it is considered extremely insulting for a student to tell the teacher that they haven’t understood something, an indictment on the teacher’s ability.

“So a teacher might find that a refugee child is nodding and saying, ‘Yes, I’ve understood’,” she says, “when, in fact, they haven’t.

“We try, the whole time the kids are here, to educate them away from practices like that, and often we have success by about week three. It’s like they don’t quite believe me, that it’s okay to put their hand up and say, ‘I don’t get it’, for those first weeks!”

While asking for help is one of the key constructs of our education system, Hayward says, teachers shouldn’t assume that a refugee child has the confidence to do it, as that can put them at an even greater disadvantage.

“They need to see it happening, they need to see the first daring risk-taker in class asking a question, or getting something wrong, and receiving a positive response from the teacher. After that there’s no stopping them.”

What is ‘normal’?

Hayward advocates that when dealing with refugee children in their classrooms teachers keep in mind at all times the idea that ‘normal’ is a flimsy concept which is useless to the newly arrived.

“I think teachers are halfway there if they understand that everything we do – the way we behave, the assumptions we make in any given situation involving interaction – is built up gradually over the course of a lifetime, from the day we’re born, in an environment we would call ‘normal’.

“Teachers need to understand that ‘normal’ is a relative concept; refugees find themselves expected to pick up on all the cues we don’t need pointed out for us, and to react and behave as we would ‘normally’ expect. That must be quite terrifying! And yet it’s infinitely less terrifying than the world they’ve come from in so many cases.”

Another issue that teachers should watch for, says Hayward, is the fact that in many cases, due to the sometimes haphazard nature of the education they’ve so far received, a young refugee student might display dazzling ability in one aspect of learning, but require remedial assistance in others. If this isn’t picked up, teachers may assume that a child is at a certain level, when really they’re well below.

Hayward cites a child she recently dealt with who couldn’t read or write, but who could do quite complex mathematics in his head. This anomaly is compounded, she says, by the earlier issue: if they don’t have the confidence to speak up, they could find themselves desperately trying to keep up at a level of education they’re not equipped to handle. On top of everything else – the horror they’ve fled, a strange country, a strange language – imagine what this would do to their emotional wellbeing.

Refugees become Kiwis

Nonetheless, Hayward is adamant that we need to stop treating refugees like refugees at some point, because of course, as soon as they set foot on New Zealand soil, they’re no longer refugees, they’re Kiwis. Teachers should be mindful of treating refugee students as ‘different’ and should remember that in many cases these young people can contribute unique skills, for which they should be acknowledged.

“A skill that a lot of refugee children have is an incredible aural memory. They’re often used to learning from listening.

“Of course, when you don’t have much English, that’s not much use in class, but it’s an ability that so many refugee children have that they can contribute.”

Unfortunately, in Hayward’s experience, many refugees have been subjected to stereotyping that just makes them feel even more alien in a foreign country.

“People from refugee backgrounds, I’m afraid, are often thought of in deficit terms. We tend to think ‘what have they suffered’, ‘what have they lost’, ‘how traumatised they must be,’ ‘oh dear, how are we going to remedy this’. If you ask many people to think of words they associate with ‘refugee’, you’re going to get things like ‘terrorist’ and ‘traumatised’. Then there are value judgements: people think ‘dirty’, ‘primitive’, ‘disease’, and that sort of thing.”

Hayward suggests that we consider the strengths and the skills of a person who has been subjected to these experiences and ask ourselves what they may have gained from such experiences that they could bring to their new environment.

“Life experience, maturity, wisdom, and compassion are often traits that refugees have in spades,” she says. “I think it was Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, who said, ‘Suffering can make you better, or bitter’.

“There’s cultural and linguistic knowledge that these people bring with them. Some refugees have learnt three languages by the time they get here, and then learn English. We know now that people who have more than one language become more intelligent.

“What often happens is that they become hugely compassionate and empathetic people. Quite frankly I think that’s the best quality any individual can have. If you’ve got a society full of empathetic people you’ve got a great society.”

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