I met Sar Gaw at his home through English Language Partners Wellington’s ESOL home tutoring programme in November 2019. At the same time, I met Sar Gaw’s wife Mary, and Lavender, their lovely five-year-old daughter.
They very kindly welcomed me into their home and have shown great hospitality as we undertake our English lessons.
Sar Gaw and Mary were both born in the Karen State of Myanmar where their parents still live.
The family arrived in New Zealand about a year ago after a somewhat circuitous route to get to Wellington. He left Myanmar about 14 years ago having spent most of the time before his recent arrival in New Zealand in Malaysia (approximately 13 years).
Sar Gaw worked as an air conditioning technician in Malaysia. It sounds like this time was not without risk, as Saw Gaw had to negotiate living in a country where his refugee status meant that he didn’t enjoy the same employment rights and protections of Malaysian citizens. However, he met Mary in Malaysia and they had Lavender.
On arrival in New Zealand, the family spent some time at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland and then finally settled in Newtown, Wellington.
Sar Gaw and I meet weekly. We have a lot of fun experimenting with different ways to improve his English.
Sar Gaw was very clear with me from the outset that his preference is to improve his conversational English. He sees this as the key to improving the quality of his social interactions and as being fundamental in getting a job.
In this sense, he sees writing as important but secondary to our main focus together. I agree with Sar Gaw about our approach to learning together. It reminds me of my experience learning Arabic in the Middle East. I was much more comfortable reading and writing Arabic. The really tough thing for me was to confidently engage in conversation on the street. I could see that speaking Arabic more proficiently would be the real key to understanding the culture and expanding my circle of friends and acquaintances.
So we set a clear goal to really improve Sar Gaw’s verbal skills by the end of the year. And an important vehicle for Sar Gaw is through engaging in conversation outside the home.
Over the past few months, Sar Gaw has been using every opportunity to engage with people. So at the bus stop, the supermarket, when he picks Lavender from school, he uses these opportunities to speak in English with others.
At each of our sessions, we go through Sar Gaw’s write-ups of his conversations during the previous week. We correct any spelling and talk about any grammatical matters. I have been amazed how much Sar Gaw’s confidence has grown through doing this. And he said to me that he feels his world has “opened up” as a result of talking with people outside home.
We also have a bit of fun doing tongue twisters to help with pronunciation. For example, “Around the rugged rocks, the ragged rascals ran.”
With the arrival of Covid-19, this has meant that a lot of the conversational contact Sar Gaw was enjoying outside home has unfortunately been restricted.
But the courage and resilience Sar Gaw and his family have shown since leaving Myanmar holds them in great stead for dealing with the current health risks faced by New Zealand and the rest of the world.
Sar Gaw and I now speak over the phone each week. I am so pleased we can keep our contact going and I can continue to support his drive to be proficient in English.
It is such a privilege to work with Sar Gaw. I so admire his courage, resilience and determination to learn English and to do the best for his family in New Zealand.
Sar Gaw embodies the Maori phrase “Kia Kaha” (be strong), or in Karin “bassu taa” in his approach to life.
And I have no doubt that Sar Gaw will achieve his personal goals and be an inspiration to others who find themselves in similar circumstances.
With huge thanks to John Hobbs, volunteer ESOL home tutor, Wellington centre.