Tragic images of the plight of refugees around the world have been saturating our screens recently. It can seem like the conflicts driving desperate people from their homes, compelling them to brave huge distances, often on foot, have no end and are beyond counting. As no one can fail to be aware, a wave of forced immigration is breaking on Europe’s shores, worse than any seen since World War II.

Despite some of the callous, ignorant and hopefully fringe opinions expressed in the comments sections of local media coverage, most New Zealanders surely consider a willingness to help, a sense of compassion, to be part of the identity that makes us Kiwis. We are a nation that takes pride in helping those less fortunate than ourselves – and in the context of the unimaginable trauma that so many refugees have experienced, the accident of our birth makes us very fortunate indeed.

According to (, New Zealand ranks first equal on a per capita basis in terms of number resettled, among the 10 nations that regularly accept refugees. But we also rank lowest in post-arrival support.

This is clearly a concern we need to address as a nation. Given the trauma that refugees carry with them and the shock they experience on arrival in a culture that’s often completely alien to them, our duty is clearly not discharged when refugees step onto New Zealand soil.

Learning is part of what makes us Kiwis

Education is arguably even more critical to the future of school-age students from refugee backgrounds than it is to those born here. The emotional and psychological ‘baggage’ they carry with them is sometimes beyond our comprehension, and we know that trauma of any kind is a serious obstacle to wellbeing, not to mention learning.

Some students from refugee backgrounds may have lived in camps their entire lives, in conditions where survival is the only priority. They may have no memory – or even conception – of what we would call a ‘normal’ life. They may have never experienced the support structures that scaffold our lives: family, community, health professionals, teachers. A feature of some of the more tragic stories refugees bring with them is violence, torture, war, and the loss of family.

Integration into a culture that’s entirely alien can in some cases be no less traumatic. When people from refugee backgrounds leave the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, where arrivals are initially housed and take their first steps toward familiarising themselves with their new home, reality bites deep. The responsibilities of life in New Zealand must be faced, the pressure of navigating an incomprehensible social structure, norms of etiquette and our bureaucratic labyrinth present challenges we can only imagine.

For school-aged children from refugee backgrounds, education in this country is quite likely to be radically different from any they’ve experienced before, assuming they’ve ever had learning opportunities. If they’ve been lucky enough to have experienced anything like education, their progress has invariably been badly disrupted. Not to mention the fact that many, if not most, refugee background students suddenly find themselves having to learn a new language before they can even begin trying to get across the education gap to the level of their New Zealand-born peer group.

An inclusive environment

Like so many schools, Wellington East Girls’ College (WEGC) has in recent years seen students from refugee backgrounds become a more visible presence. Kirsty Ferguson and Laressa Donaldson work in the school’s Hauora (wellbeing) Centre, Kirsty as guidance leader and Laressa as guidance counsellor. Both say that part of creating a welcoming environment for students from refugee backgrounds is trying to understand the cultural tensions to which they can be subjected.

“[Students from refugee backgrounds] come with such a big backstory. They often, I think, end up straddling a commitment to their culture, their religion and that kind of thing, but also trying to grow up to become Kiwi kids. They are, I think, in danger of being ‘sandwiched’,” says Kirsty.

Linda Todd is head of department English language learning and English at WEGC and leads the school’s New Settlers Programme, which includes pastoral elements as well as assessment to establish what academic level a new student fits into. The assessment programme includes full-time reception classes for those who are total newcomers to the English language.

An important part of helping to foster an inclusive environment, says Linda, is to reach out to the families of students from refugee backgrounds so that they can begin to familiarise themselves with the way the school works, and feel included in their child’s education. This presents its own challenges, she says.

“We try to involve parents and get them to come to meetings so that they can become familiar with school processes. We have mixed success in this respect sometimes, because some parents work very long hours and can’t make it to school at all.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to reach people. We have such a multilingual community, and one of the challenges is finding interpreters for a given language. We do everything we can, but that can be a big stumbling block.

“So often it’s the student who picks English up much faster than the parents, so they’re often our first port of call, if you like. Quite often the parent will bring a relative or a member of their ethnic community to meetings. It really depends on where the student is from. If there’s large numbers from a given ethnic group, there will be mixed abilities in terms of English language competency. This can make the whole thing easier.”

Simple needs

Guidance counsellor Laressa Donaldson says that it’s sometimes just a matter of listening to the students. She says that her team recently realised that a group of WEGC girls from refugee backgrounds wanted something very simple, and very deliverable: a space for socialising.

Laressa says, though, that this simple ambition isn’t quite as straightforward as it might first appear, because there are sometimes cultural norms that should be taken into account.

“We realised that there was a bunch of girls [from a refugee background] that were just wanting to have some time out to be themselves. But sometimes the rules of their culture and the expectations of their families mean that, while they’re strongly supported to be in school, they aren’t necessarily supported to get out there and mix with others outside school or home. So we realised that they needed some space to be playful and joyful, to play music and have fun with their peers.”

As the social group had to be school-based, a local support agency, Newtown Community Centre, was approached to work with Laressa and the team.

“The great thing for me is that they identified this need themselves,” says Kirsty. “They decided on exactly what they wanted to do in the group and how it was going to run. So with the consent of parents, we got it up and running.

“It was really interesting, they came up with lots of ideas as to what they wanted to get out of the group. They wanted, for example, to teach each other different dancing styles. But actually, what it ended up being was just a lot of talking, chatting, getting to know each other. This was a group of girls who were already very close, so they were able to talk about their friendships and relationships, and how to manage those relationships.”

All three WEGC staff who shared their perspective with Gazette Focus agree that navigating cultural difference with sensitivity is crucial to maintaining an environment in which everybody’s heritage is respected. While this can throw up the odd cultural conundrum, with effective and open communication there’s always a solution, says Kirsty.

WEGC’s wellbeing day could have been one of those curly issues, for example, where the participation of students from a Muslim background is concerned. Any confusion was successfully negotiated with the help of an understanding member of staff, says Laressa.

“We’re really lucky, we have a Muslim staff member. Last year we ran a wellbeing day around things like consent, sexual health, and that sort of thing, that you might expect from a typical senior school health programme. When we were doing the planning around that, we discussed how we were going to meet the needs of students from cultural backgrounds that might find that sort of thing a bit uncomfortable. It was great having a Muslim member of staff on board to help us broker the programme.

“She had a very clear line actually, which was that these students need this information just like everyone else.”

Kirsty says that a lot of their work, with students from refugee backgrounds or otherwise, is a matter of joining the dots – of connecting the needs of students with those who can help. Sometimes this can turn into opportunities for professional development. One particular WEGC student from a refugee background, says Kirsty, was passionate about helping members of the community who’d been through similar experiences. Kirsty and her team connected this student with Changemakers, a refugee community advocacy service, where she was able to volunteer. It was a great chance to get to know a bit more about the work that such organisations do, says Kirsty.

A delicate balance

Sometimes, this community outreach can take on a more urgent hue. Kirsty talks about a student from a refugee background who worked up the courage to approach the team with concerns for her domestic safety. School guidance counsellors are, of course, bound by confidentiality, so they can’t simply pick up the phone and get the appropriate support person in. The student themselves must give their permission. In such cases, Kirsty has found that local community ethnic liaison officer Phil Pithew has offered invaluable perspective.

“We can’t just tell the student what’s best for them. We need to gently suggest that a certain support worker could come in and talk to them about a dysfunctional relationship, for example.

“We might slowly work toward involving the family in the conversation, if that’s something that we think will be safe and helpful. Because Phil is from a refugee background himself, he just had a great sense of the dynamic involved with transitioning into another country and culture.

“There was another piece of work that spun out from that: we looked at how young people manage relationships. Phil came along to a few assemblies where we spoke to the entire student body about safety and wellbeing, and relationship or domestic violence.”

What can you do to upskill on refugee issues?

There are plenty of opportunities out there for teachers, schools, and students to broaden their knowledge around issues affecting the wider refugee community, and students from a refugee background. Here are just a few:

Red Cross (

Red Cross is one of the prominent community organisations that assist refugees in settling and making a life for themselves in New Zealand. What better way to understand the issues faced by these new Kiwis than to volunteer? Red Cross runs many programmes that directly enable people from refugee backgrounds to rebuild their lives, including:

Pathways to settlement ( this programme offers initial support to refugees as they begin their resettlement journey

Pathways to employment (

Volunteer to help former refugees: ( if you want to understand more about the plight of former refugees, there’s no better PLD than to get involved in their lives. Volunteers are an invaluable friendly face and supportive guide. Contact the Red Cross to see what you could do; there may even be opportunities to involve students in helping out.

Who are refugees? ( Red Cross has plenty of resources online that you can read.

Changemakers (

ChangeMakers Refugee Forum is a non-government organisation (NGO) representing 14 refugee-background communities. Though based in Wellington only, Changemakers have a wealth of resources and learning opportunities that can be accessed through their website (, many of which have been compiled by people from refugee backgrounds themselves.

Refugee Health (

The Refugee Health and Screening Service is part of the Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS). The service covers the greater Auckland region, but lots of learning materials and details of training programmes are accessible through their resources page:

Refugee Council of New Zealand (

The Refugee Council of New Zealand (RCNZ) is a national organisation whose purpose is to provide advice, information and assistance to asylum-seekers and refugees in New Zealand; promote a strategic response to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers; and to campaign to ensure that New Zealand meets its legal and humanitarian obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees.


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