Jhon the trailblazer: former refugee leads the way

Learner Stories
Our Organisation

Jhon Cadena couldn’t speak a word of English when he landed at Auckland Airport.

Eight months later, he can have a full conversation with strangers in the street and assists other newcomers in their English learning journey.

It’s undeniable that John Cadena’s smile is contagious and that his warmth, kindness and care nature come across quickly. This is perhaps, why strangers he meets in the streets of Levin end up chatting.

Jhon and his wife, Eliana, were the first two former refugees to settle in Levin when the town officially became a new refugee settlement location in October 2022. Jhon fled the insecurity of Colombia when he was 20 years old with Eliana and their young daughter. It was an accumulation of events which prompted the family to cross the border to Ecuador.

“I got out of Colombia for my daughter. I want all the best for her so I took the decision to leave, as it’s unsafe in Colombia. There are many armed groups, drug cartels and drug trafficking, and too much corruption,” explains Jhon.

After five difficult years living in Ecuador, where opportunities are very limited for Colombian refugees and well-paid jobs are hard to find, the Cadena family was finally resettled in Aotearoa New Zealand under our Refugee Quota programme.

Moving here has been a life-changing experience for Jhon and his whānau.

“When I heard the news that we were coming to New Zealand, I was too happy and I had to sit down! New Zealand has changed our lives. I feel safe and good here.”

While Levin is far from busy, hectic Cadiz; Colombia’s third largest town where Jhon grew up, he loves his new hometown and its people. The welcoming and kindness the Cadena family have received has had a deep impact on the whānau who had been looking for a safe place to call home.

“People here are so friendly, they want to help us. We really enjoy Levin! It’s small, but then everything is close, and the people are too nice,” says Jhon, with the biggest smile.

From the local volunteers who helped him settle in and with his English, to the local pharmacist who gifted Jhon her husband’s old guitar, to the beautiful pōwhiri and house blessing the family received – the Cadena whānau couldn’t feel more welcomed into their new town.  

Jhon Cadena studies with English Language Partners

“It was a breakthrough moment when they [the first former refugees] arrived,” explains David Harris, English Language Partners’ (ELP) manager for Horowhenua Kapiti.

“We relocated our centre about two years ago to accommodate them, and we’d been anticipating their arrival for three years, which was postponed many times because of COVID-19 and the border closures. So, it was a special thing to meet for the first time. I personally found it quite moving.”

As they’ve rebuilt a new life in Levin, the support they received from ELP has been very important for Jhon and his family.

“English Language Partners has been so good to us. They’ve helped us with so many things. Not just with the English, but also with important information about Horowhenua, understanding the culture and even with donated items.”

 A fierce determination

Acquiring the local language can be one of the hardest parts of settling into a new country for former refugees or new migrants. It can prevent people from having a sense of belonging, socialising and finding their way around the city.

Just like many other newcomers, Jhon was eager to acquire English. From the day he set foot in Auckland Airport, he was determined to learn English, and quickly. Jhon embraced all learning opportunities and by the time he arrived in Levin, he’d already learnt enough vocabulary to stand out from the other people who had arrived at the same time.

“Jhon was unsure about using his English and whether he was understanding Kiwis, but I think his English was a little bit like an iceberg, there was definitely something under the water when I met him and given the right environment and a feeling of safety, he came out fairly quickly,” says David.

Today, Jhon attends ELP’s classes four times a week. He also has a home tutor he sees once a week and has tones of learning activities.

“Jhon is focused on learning. He is very self-motivated and does a lot of leaning at home and online, and grabs any opportunity to speak English,” says David.

Jhon Cadena studies with English Language Partners

The speed at which he is acquiring English is exceeding all expectations. Within months, he gained his learner driver’s licence and increased his confidence in speaking. He also even volunteers at the local SPCA.

“I enjoy talking to people in Levin, even if I don’t know them,” explains Jhon with a laugh.

“I was talking with an old man outside the supermarket, and I said, ‘Hello, how are you?’ After that, I knew his name was John as well, and he was waiting for a taxi to go to his rest home. He was a very nice man.”

Jhon has also shown leadership among other former refugees, acting as an intermediary for newcomers. During ELP’s pōwhiri, he interprets for new arrivals, and was recently offered a part-time position with ELP as a Community Language Assistant, helping bridge communication between teacher and learners.

“Jhon is a bit of a trailblazer, showing others what is possible,” says David.

There is no doubt Jhon’s fierce determination will help him thrive in Levin, and perhaps one day lead him to become a police officer – Jhon’s long term dream.

Jhon Cadena studies with English Language Partners and works part-time as an ELP community language assistant
This is some text inside of a div block.

English Language Groups

  • 2-4 hours per week
  • Learn Kiwi English in a class
  • Learn about New Zealand culture
  • Go on day trips
  • Meet other people in your community
  • Qualified teachers
  • Fees may apply. Ask at your centre.
  • In all centres

Related articles

Related articles


My ‘Eureka’ teaching moment


English through the lens of art


Better English, better career for Zhihui Lu