Gaining confidence, one word at a time | ELPNZ

Gaining confidence, one word at a time

11 November 2016

Before Senait says a word, her warm smile reveals her hospitable nature, something that is confirmed in minutes, when she starts roasting coffee beans in her lounge, a traditional practice in her native country, and preparing the table for an inevitable serving of delicious rice, veggies and injera bread.

Senait, who arrived in New Zealand as a refugee in 2013, has been learning English with English Language Partners for a year now, first with her home tutor Silena Kirkconnell-Kawana and now through formal ESOL Literacy classes four days a week. And though she still relies on help from her family to translate, her English is steadily improving, and word by word the pieces are beginning to fall into place in her adopted language.

“Senait has gone from being a woman who wouldn’t talk to or look at me at our first meeting, to a friendly, vibrant, confident woman who has simple conversations in English with me on the phone, and who welcomes me into her home to chat about family,” Silena says.

New to teaching English, Silena says the biggest challenge was “identifying what Senait wanted to learn and then keeping her focused during each learning session. “If the topic wasn’t relevant to Senait at the time, she would become bored and distracted very easily,” she recalls. The best results, she soon found, came by teaching through activities.

“One of our learning sessions was making ANZAC biscuits. Earlier in the week, Senait had asked me what a biscuit was and I showed her a photo of an ANZAC biscuit. I then explained to her what ANZAC meant and she was able to relate this to the Eritrean Independence Day. “The next session, I brought all the ingredients for ANZAC biscuits and had Senait make the biscuits by reading the recipe in English as I showed her how to measure out the ingredients and make the biscuits. “In that one session, she read the recipe, heard the recipe being read out, wrote the recipe, read the recipe aloud, made the recipe and ate delicious ANZAC biscuits. It was a huge learning experience.”

Part of the lessons’ success, says Silena, is because the pair clicked and had an “absolutely fantastic” relationship, much more than that of tutor and learner. “Senait and I, and our families, have become family,” Silena says. “Senait and [her husband] Goitom Abraham, have been very happy to share their culture with us and have been open to living within our culture. “There are some cultural differences between our families. However, our love and respect for each other, and our openness to these differences ensures that our relationship is not negatively affected.”

In between swapping baking tips and going on shared visits to the supermarket, the two covered the house with Post-it notes, surrounding Senait with the new vocab she had learnt, which Silena says allowed her to “see her confidence increase in knowing what things are in English and use what she knows to have a simple conversation.”

Mastering the language is now just one of Senait’s goals – she is determined to become a caregiver when her language skills are up to scratch, something that would not only be a cultural change – women don’t traditionally work in her native country so it would be her first job outside of rearing the family’s four children – but it would also allow her to work and save the much-needed money to be able to visit her mum back home. Senait, pointing to a photo of her 84-year-old mother hanging on the wall, says her goals are: “[Get] my English very nice, work as a caregiver, [earn] more money, come to Eritrea and [see] my mum.”

Senait’s new lifestyle is not just geographically removed from that of her mother. There is also a cultural and generational shift going on in the family. While Senait dreams of one day working for the first time, her 20-year-old daughter Rodas, born after the country won its independence in 1991, is a product of a different Eritrea, one that encourages women to be more than just wives and mothers. “Back in the [olden] days it was traditional that the woman stayed at home and the man worked. Now it’s changing,” explains Senait’s nephew David Alemu. “In Eritrea, there is [now] gender equality because when they liberated the country even women were fighting alongside men so a lot of women died as well during the 30-year civil war. So women are not seen as being inferior to men when it comes to having access to jobs, education and so on.”

Now, as Senait continues to study hard, the family is acutely aware of the opportunities Rodas has, and Senait and her husband are encouraging her to study hard and dream big. “When we were in Eritrea, if you are a girl you have to do a lot of [house] work, but when we came to New Zealand everything is different, you have to do your studies,” Rodas says. Although the family appears well settled and happy in their home, Senait says it wasn’t always that way. One of the hardest things about the move down under, she says, was spending a year sleeping at a friend’s place as the family waited to get a house.

“For one year [there was] no house. My children were crying, they wanted to go home,” she remembers. Now, however, the house is more than just a place to live. It’s truly a home, with family photos on the wall, alongside traditional decorations and religious ornaments. “We have forgotten about all those things because we have moved into a better situation,” Senait says through David, who interprets. Although Senait’s plans to visit her mother are never far from her thoughts, for the meantime she is focused squarely on graduating from the beginners level in her language classes – something that, with her determination, she will no doubt achieve very soon.

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