A new life in Hamilton

ENGLISH IS HARD: Abbas Bagheri, his wife, Sediqa, and their three-year-old son, Mohammad. Sadiqa’s English is not fluent and the family speak Dari at home.
ENGLISH IS HARD: Abbas Bagheri, his wife, Sediqa, and their three-year-old son, Mohammad. Sadiqa’s English is not fluent and the family speak Dari at home.

A year ago, 19 Afghan interpreters and their families arrived in Hamilton to start new lives. The men spoke English so competently that they could look for work straight away, and most found it. Life hasn't been so easy for some of the women. 

Saying goodbye to family in Afghanistan, Nigeena Anwari was filled with sadness. By the time she arrived in New Zealand with her husband and baby, she felt dull inside. As she stepped off the plane, she remembers it was raining and kind of dark. She thought to herself, what has been done has been done.

It was winter. The powhiri on her first day in Hamilton went for hours and her son got cold. That night, they took him to hospital.

STILL STRUGGLING: Nigeena Anwari and her son, Ahmad Kazimi.
STILL STRUGGLING: Nigeena Anwari and her son, Ahmad Kazimi.

She felt intensely homesick for about three months. When she and her husband bought a car, she saw the possibility of happiness for the first time. She's since learned to drive and has an appointment booked to sit her restricted licence in July.

"I have a lot of dreams," she says through Sobira, a translator.*

"Which ones should I start with? I want to improve my English [she is taking a course at Wintec] and I want to get a job."

She would like to work in childcare, or as a shopkeeper in a mall, but she gets headaches, and her English has a way to go.

Like most of the other wives of the Afghan interpreters interviewed, Nigeena practises very little English with her husband when he gets home from work.

"When he comes home, he wants to speak Dari."

Nigeena is modern by Afghan standards. She wears a hijab, but it sits loosely around her face and she doesn't rush to pull it forward when hair peeks through. In her home province of Bamyan, she finished school and her English, though limited, is good enough to hold a conversation. She describes her family back home as educated and "quite different and modern compared to other Afghan ladies". In Bamyan, she liked to wear shorter skirts than she wears today.

English Language Partners Waikato manager Jo de Lisle says she has observed a conservatism in terms of dress and appearance when migrants - especially refugees - first move to New Zealand. She says there are complex reasons for this, but wonders if it's mainly about maintaining culture and preserving identity. In Nigeena's case, it was about assimilating with the wives of the interpreters.

"Many Afghan women who arrived here wore long scarves and longer dresses, so her husband advised her to wear longer clothes to be more like them," Sobira translates. "In the beginning, it was difficult for Nigeena, because she was used to wearing what she wanted with no pressure, but slowly she got used to it."

Slowly, she is getting used to her new life. It's good, she says, when she goes out with her husband, "but as soon as she comes back to the house, the same feelings come back and she is lonely and she feels unhappy again."

On low days, she Skypes her mum. It makes her feel better, and sometimes worse. The other day, she looked at her family all together in Afghanistan and she sat at home by herself. "Her husband came home from work and she didn't want to serve him," says Sobira. "She lay down on the couch and didn't want to move."

Her mum is now living in Kabul, the capital. Two weeks ago, she was in the area of an election campaign for presidential candidate Dr Abdullah Abdullah and there was an attack. "She wasn't hurt," says Nigeena in her broken English, "but she is really frightened. My family in Afghanistan are in a bad situation. There are bomb attacks, sometimes more than two a day. I want my mum to come and visit me. I need to find out from immigration how I can bring her here." She sits in her house with the curtains closed and the TV tuned to a Persian station. She worries every minute about her family. And her dreams go forward and back. She wants to be here because it's safe, but she shares the same problem as many migrants. She's left people behind. And they aren't safe where they are.

"Every night she dreams about her family," translates Sobira.

"Sometimes she dreams she is going somewhere with them, sometimes she dreams she is crying with them . . . different dreams."

Sher Ali did not tell his fellow villagers in Afghanistan that he was an interpreter for the New Zealand Defence Force in Bamyan. He told them he had a small business selling second-hand goods. "Our village was surrounded by insurgents and people who didn't like the forces. I didn't want to risk my family or myself."

His work was a 14-hour drive from his village, so he stayed with the New Zealand soldiers and travelled home every three or four months to see his wife.

"When my son was born, I was not at home. I was doing my job, and when I got

back into our base camp, I heard the news I have a son. I was very happy, but I was also sad, because I was not there to see him. After about 20 days, I got the chance to travel home."

When Sher married Zahra, he did not tell her family about his real job until his contract was almost up. Then he told them he wanted to move to New Zealand.

"They were not happy with the decision. My mother-in-law is not happy with me. She is mad that I took her daughter to a strange place."

Zahra hasn't spoken to her mum since she moved to New Zealand. Her parents live in a village where cellphone reception is limited and many people have no power. When Zahra prepared to shift, she gathered photos of her family and her village, but somehow in the move, she left them all behind. She has one photo that she keeps in her drawer. She looks at it when she feels lonely.

"She dreams she is together with her mum and dad and they are talking," translates Sobira.

Zahra sits in her lounge in Claudelands and her small house is the cleanest you'll ever see. Everything shines and everything is put away. She speaks in a whisper and plays nervously with her ring. Her hajib folds severely around her face and there isn't a trace of hair. She won't be photographed.

She takes classes at the migrant centre four times a week, run by the Waikato branch of English Language Partners. She walks there with her son, Misbah. Other than that, she doesn't leave the house much. She's scared to go far in case she can't find her way back. She has taken classes for a year, but because she doesn't have people to practise with, she struggles to say more than her name and where she lives in English.

Sher says his first priority is to make sure his son speaks Dari as well as English, so he likes to only speak Dari when the family is together.

"When I am home, I speak my language with my son. I don't know if he understands or not, but I tell him stories of my father, my grandfather, and I will carry on doing that."

Zhara finds it hard sometimes, he says. "In the beginning, she thought everyone here won't like the way she is dressing, but now she is OK. She goes to classes and I think she can understand a few words in English, probably. She watches cartoons with our son."

On weekends, the family does a supermarket shop, and sometimes they go for day trips.

Zhara speaks and her husband translates: "She says she likes everything about Hamilton. Wherever she has been, it is a nice place. She misses her family. She does. It was hard and it still is hard at the moment."

English Language Partners runs four classes in Hamilton for men and women who have had less than nine years of education in their home country. Funding comes from the Tertiary Education Commission.

"We don't just teach English," says Jo de Lisle, "we teach people how to survive and manage, and we teach them phrases that will be useful in daily life."

There are myriad problems.

"They are getting used to a very different lifestyle, different kinds of food, shopping, different beliefs and different clothing - even the layout of the furniture. Having often been in a close community where everyone knows each other - in the street, not only do you not know people, but they don't speak the same language."

Social isolation, she says, is an issue for all migrant groups, especially those who have arrived as refugees. "If they've only got their husbands here, they have a very small community.

"In many refugee communities, you'll find women who won't go out. The danger is depression, homesickness and withdrawal. There are cases of refugee women who have not been able to come out of their house for a year because they have been so traumatised."

Two Afghan women from the English language class in Nawton agree to speak on the condition they will not be named or photographed. Sobira translates.

"They knew nothing about New Zealand before they came last year. She imagined, it's so far away, how will she do it? Will there be telephone communication?"

Their first impression of New Zealand was bland. Because, they say, they were leaving their families behind and they were so upset.

They watch Sobira translate their words and their eyes move back and forth, both are close to tears.

"It's hard," says Sobira, "because they are missing their mum and dad and they don't have any choice. They feel they have left behind a lot. They feel alone."

One speaks. "As soon as I go to bed, I dream about my family," Sobira translates.

They both speak. "They cry," says Sobira. "They cry a lot.

"Day by day it is getting easier. Home tutors come once a week to teach English and they see them as a teacher and friend. But they are also becoming more and more upset about their families, because they don't see them.

"The dream is peace in Afghanistan and they will take their children and go back."

Abbas Bagheri sits in his lounge in a quiet Melville suburb, next to Sediqa Fasihi, his wife. He remembers the first time they met.

He had finished his second degree in Afghanistan and was approaching 30 when his brother took him aside and said no more excuses, it's time to marry. He asked what Abbas thought of Sediqa, the sister of a colleague.

Both families met. They were happy. But Abbas wanted to speak to his future wife alone.

It was a Monday.

"We went face-to-face," says Abbas.

"We are standing by ourselves in a room like a lounge. I say, I am Abbas, I am this man.

She says, these are my attributes: sometimes I get grumpy.

Abbas says OK.

She says: I like my husband to be patient.

He says he is patient.

They spend an hour talking. Sediqa wants to finish high school before she marries. Abbas agrees.

"When I saw him, I liked him," says Sediqa.

"I appreciate my brother, because of his choice," says Abbas. "I am very, very, very happy about this marriage. I love her. Sometimes in Afghanistan, we do not say woman, we say life."

Abbas is a happy man with a lot of sayings. He leans forward on the sofa.

"In Afghanistan, there is a saying: This is our dream, we want to catch it. Then we say, no, it is not possible. Now Sediqa and I show our family and friends in Afghanistan: the impossible is not impossible."

Learning English seems the only impossibility to Sediqa at the moment.

"Here, all the time," says Abbas, "I encourage her - learn English! Please go and study at Wintec, or classes, or anywhere you like. I am not a very hard man. I put the choice in her hands. If she wants to work, that's OK, no problem, and if she wants to study, that's OK, no problem at all."

But he, too, wants to speak his home language to his child.

Sadiqa sits next to Abbas and communicates in Dari in between giggles. She wants to be a nurse, she tells Abbas. Then she giggles. "And then . . ." says Abbas.

She giggles.

"She says: I do not think that one day I will learn English, because it is so difficult."

Sometimes, she says, it is hard to be here, "because sometimes people knock on the door and I do not know what they want".

And the biggest challenge of them all is thinking about their families, and what they have left behind. "Yes," says Abbas, "that is very difficult for us. But I like to be here."

He leans forward again.

"In Afghanistan, we have a saying: If you know one language, you are one person. If you know two languages, you are two persons. You can find many friends with language! And with this language - English - I can find many, many friends."

To find out about volunteering as an English language tutor, visit englishlanguage.org.nz/Hamilton, or phone 07 853 2188, or email waikato@englishlanguage.org.nz.

The latest intake of Afghan interpreters and their families arrived in Hamilton last Friday - World Refugee Day.

The Red Cross runs training every two months for those interested in supporting a newly arrived refugee family, and the next training begins on Tuesday, June 24. For more information, email hello@redcross.org.nz or phone (07) 849 0285 or 0800RedCross.

* All quotes given in English came through a translator, either a husband or Sobira (who didn't want her surname use), who speaks Persian fluently.

Waikato Times