There’s plenty of good-natured communicating going on in a small room on the third floor of the Science Alive! building in Christchurch, but it’s all in silence.
The small group that sits around the table is a mix of deaf pre-literate learners from Somalia and Bhutan and their Kiwi tutors and support workers. They are communicating animatedly through a mix of New Zealand and Nepali Sign Language, and the smiles say it all.
For this vulnerable group of refugees, the lessons, which are a partnership between English Language Partners Christchurch, Christchurch Resettlement Services and CCS Disability Action, have changed their lives and allowed them to share in the freedoms New Zealand offers.
“I can go places and meet people,” says 30-year-old Somali refugee Qali Abdille, through our bilingual tutor and interpreter for the morning, Indira Bhandari. “I can text Sheree and go places with friends. I can meet other people and I’m on a cloud when they come,” she smiles.
Sheree Currie, a deaf CCS Disability Action support worker, says the lessons help the refugees from becoming isolated. “There would be no point for them to come to New Zealand if we didn’t help them.” Shoba Kadariya, a Bhutanese refugee, says that learning New Zealand sign language means she can make friends.
In the short time she has been with the group she has already learnt to write the names of her classmates. Fellow Bhutanese refugee, 57-year-old Kanchi Biswa has only been with the group a couple of months and, like the other members of the group, has never learned to read or write.
The group gets together for four two-hour sessions a week and makes slow, patient progress as they learn to read, write and sign in English. Today they are learning the signs for a morning routine. “We wake up,” says Indira, her fingers dramatising the movement of open eyes. “We shower and then dry ourselves. We put on socks and shoes. We brush our hair. We put on makeup.” Her fingers do the talking.
In between actions, Indira and the support workers indicate the pictures and words on sheets of paper that depict the motions. The learners mimic her actions and point to the pictures. In amongst the repetition and gradual understanding there are a lot of laughs.
Devika Mishra signs that she doesn’t like the hair that collects in the bottom of the shower and Sheree suggests she could use it to make a wig. These refugees have more challenges than most. In addition to the stress that comes with being in a foreign country, they cannot hear and do not read or write in any language.
English Language Partners’ Manager, Joanna Biss says the pre-literate classes, of which the deaf group make up a small part, are a partnership between English
Language Partners and Christchurch Resettlement Services. The ‘Living Well in Christchurch’ programme opened up to deaf learners when, in 2006, Qali joined the programme.
“These learners are some of the most marginalized and invisible groups in New Zealand society,” says Joanna. “They have no access to mainstream New Zealand Sign Language classes as they cannot read or write in any language, and while deaf community workers support the learners, they are not funded to teach New Zealand Sign Language.”
Indira, who is herself a Bhutanese refugee and only learned to speak English when she arrived at the Mangere Refugee Reception Centre in 2008, is the only bilingual tutor available who has a basic level of New Zealand and Nepali Sign Language.
Christchurch Resettlement Services Manager, Shirley Wright says they provide services, such as onsite childcare workers to allow the mothers to take part in the programme. “We can see how these programmes make a difference and what benefits they bring for social inclusion. We are in awe at the way English Language Partners have responded to the need and provided some equity to ESOL provision.”
Sue Bruce, Manager CCS Disability Action, whose deaf community support workers attend the class with their clients, agrees that the service creates a great opportunity for these learners. “Communication is one of the keys to being able to do ordinary things that not having a language stops you doing. The lessons are important to help create a normal life.”
Arnya Swindale, a CCS Disability Action support worker, says that she enjoys being able to make the lives of the refugees easier. “Because I am deaf,” signs Arnya, “I understand what they are feeling and how hard it is.”
Christchurch Resettlement Services, English Language Partners, CCS Disability Action and Deaf Aotearoa have regular meetings to work on providing wrap-around support for these learners – a great example of partnerships in action.
Writer Kim Triegaardt