Language links to new life | ELPNZ

Language links to new life

09 December 2015

Remuuna Tar May’s life has revolved around language since arriving in New Zealand.

Not only is she working hard to improve her English skills and those of others, she is keen to keep her native Burmese Karen language alive for her children.

After fleeing their home in the Karen state to escape the Burmese military regime in 1997, Remuuna and her parents and siblings were forced to set up home in the jungle. “We made a shack from bamboo and leaves and slept on a dirt floor,” recalls Remuuna.
The family eventually made their way to safety at a refugee camp just over the Thai border where they lived for 15 years. It was there, thanks to a friend’s introduction, that Remuuna met Win Tun, her future husband. 
The couple married in 2000 and began seeking a life beyond the refugee camp. For a time they considered the USA, before deciding New Zealand was to be their new home. They arrived in Auckland in early 2012 and spent six weeks of orientation at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.
Now settled in Palmerston North, Remuuna and Win Tun, their twelve-year-old son Chan Tha and daughter Eh moo k’ Paw (8) have worked hard to adjust to linguistic, cultural and domestic challenges. 
“Everything was different,” says Remuuna. “We were used to living in a house made of bamboo and wood, and using candles and lamps.” 
Electricity was not the only thing to get familiar with. “I didn’t know how to use a stove or washing machine.”
Of all the challenges of their new life in a new country, language has been the greatest. 
Remuuna says, “When I came here I was faced with many difficulties, especially in communication skills, so I studied English for two years. In 2014, I joined the ESOL-Literacy class at English Language Partners.”
After a few weeks, her teacher Catherine Taylor asked her to help the Burmese learners as a volunteer Bilingual Assistant, interpreting the information and the instructions that the teacher had given them.  
“I didn’t mind doing volunteer work in the class [as] I would like to learn new things in New Zealand. My teacher suggested that I go to the Bilingual Assistant training course in Wellington. At first I refused because I didn’t think I was ready to do that with my level of English. But I got a lot of encouragement from staff and decided to attend the training.”

Remuuna gained her Bilingual Assistant certificate last year. She now works for English Language Partners as a paid Bilingual Assistant helping Burmese learners who do not speak English, and as a trained, volunteer ESOL home tutor - teaching English to a Burmese single mother.
She also volunteers one day each week at a rest home in Palmerston North.
Win Tun hopes to do advanced computer studies when his English skills improve. In the meantime, he is an active volunteer at the local Burmese Community Group. He takes a keen interest in the political developments in his home state, saying New Zealand is his adopted home “but Burma is my homeland.”
Remuuna and her family have felt very welcomed by the local Burmese community, and it is among this group that they keep in touch with their own language. “I want to keep the language alive for our children,” Remuuna says. 
Youngsters Chan Tha and Eh moo k’ Paw have done well to catch up at school, starting with limited English and a lower level of education. Chan Tha says school work was difficult at first, but adds cheerfully, “All you have to do is ask.”  
Remuuna and Win Tun agree that despite the challenges along the way, they are happy to be in a safe and peaceful country. “We came here so our children could have a better education and a better life.”
“And one day,” adds Remuuna. “I want to buy a New Zealand house.”

Story and photos: Leigh Dome