You now are stuck at your ‘campsite’. Not just for a few weeks, but for years. And you’re sharing the campsite on a windy dusty riverbank where temperatures range from near freezing to a baking 42 degrees, with some 1,700 other families. That’s no holiday, and in all probability you are not a holidaymaker – you’re a refugee.
Chuda and Khina Ghimirey are all too familiar with this scenario. It’s their story. From Bhutan, but of Nepalese descent, the couple and their five-year-old son, Prabin, are part of a community numbering 300 now living in Palmerston North and nearby Feilding.
Chuda (pronounced Suda), is an English Language Partners’ bilingual assistant and, with his command of English, acts as a liaison between this Lhotshampa (the name given to Bhutanese of Nepali descent) community, social agencies, and the people of the Manawatu region.
Notwithstanding cultural differences between New Zealand and the new arrivals, Chuda’s main concern is that there is a high level of what he calls ‘language disability’.
“Language disability is the main problem. I can understand, but the elderly who don’t know English have a great problem. They want to participate, but can’t due to their lack of language. I liken it to being deaf. “They come from a traditional society, and are quite strict in the traditions, but that makes it hard.”
As traditional farmers, the elders were illiterate in their own country, and learning to read and write in a strange language without having any literacy experience in their own, makes things doubly difficult. “They didn’t have the chance to go to school,” Khina adds. “They were expected to help in the fields.”
The older people especially, encounter problems with agencies like Work and Income, which build in few allowances for ‘language disability’ when making contact by mail.
“They are prepared to work,” Chuda continues, “but they don’t have the language skills, so what sort of job can they do? And they have spent the last 15-18 years in a camp, so they are dependent.”
Still, when it comes to comparing their past life with the one they now enjoy, there are few points for comparison.
“There are no restrictions like back in Nepal, and here we have the chance to keep our culture and traditions, and that is most important.” The next big issue for his people is training.
“They have a strong agricultural background, and they have skills, but farming here is so different. In Bhutan we had ox ploughs; here it’s all mechanised. We need to know how to handle mechanised farming.” The opportunities to make the most of life in a new country he says, all focus on education.
His comments emphasise the important work being carried out by English Language Partners. Catherine Taylor, who teaches with Chuda,says he is a pleasure to work with. “He is a lot of fun! Chuda and I have a great working relationship.”
And so Chuda continues doing what he does best – teaching, and not just his own people, but new residents who hail from Cambodia, Burma, Congo and Vietnam. Good teachers always learn from their learners, and he has picked up valuable skills in cross-cultural and communication. “I have learned some basics in their language – like greetings. I speak slowly and clearly and use repetition and images.”
As well as instructing, Chuda liaises with Refugee Services and social services, provides community support, and campaigns as a regional representative on the UNHCR national network forum that passes recommendations and information on to government, social agencies and media.
“We are documenting our problems, and so we are learning what we can do better for any new arrivals settling in the different regions – and to solve the issues they have with education, employment, health and housing.”
It seems that refugee resettlement is still very much a work in progress. Thankfully, there are committed people like Chuda helping to work through quite complex cross-cultural concerns.
Writer Richard Mays