Hamilton refugees are finding their way at Wintec

Around 140 former refuges are learning and being supported at Wintec

Around 140 former refuges are learning and being supported at Wintec including (from left) Alisina Shirzad, Rukera Hegimayi, Juan Ricardo Orrego Alvarez, Maria Nancy Berrio Brand, and Jhon Fredy Joven Vargas.

In the 12 months since New Zealand’s borders closed, the migrant and refugee community has run under the radar, although support for them in the aftermath of isolation has never been greater or more needed.

Understanding language, culture, and digital literacy is at the centre of this and Wintec is lending a helping hand. Wintec Centre for Languages  is a hub of learning for around 140  Hamilton-based former refugees, enrolled as Wintec students and  20 secondary school students getting after-school support.

Wintec is the biggest language provider in the Waikato and takes an active role, working closely with the Red Cross, Waikato District Health Board, the Refugee Orientation Centre and supporting organisations to support refugees and migrants.

Wintec Team manager, Centre for Languages, Sasitorn Kanthiya has been working with refugees and migrants all her working life and she says the Waikato region is leading the way in New Zealand with collaborative support for this community.

“Learning our language and culture is imperative for our  former refugee and migrant community to integrate and have a life, but ultimately, we want to see them take part and become active in the community as New Zealanders. The wonderful collaborative relationship we have in the Waikato means they are supported from learning to integration and developing their careers.”

She says that the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 highlighted the need to change the way learning was delivered at Wintec.

“One of the biggest challenges faced during Covid lockdown  for these people, was not just being physically isolated, many were digitally isolated. Lockdown highlighted the importance of digital literacy and we have incorporated this to ensure our learners can connect and communicate online.”


Former refugees Alisina, Hegimayi and Jhon all say they are getting supported beyond their expectations at WintecAlisina, Hegimayi and Jhon all say  they are getting supported beyond their expectations at Wintec.

Two years ago Wintec language students Alisina Shirzad from Afghanistan, Rukera Hegimayi from the Congo, and Jhon Fredy Joven Vargas from Colombia arrived around the same time in Hamilton.

Rukera Hegimayi had lived in a refugee camp for more than 10 years before coming to New Zealand and says a highlight at Wintec is the help he gets. “We get help at any time, with anything, not just study but help with life.”

Jhon Fredy Joven Vargas left Columbia for Equador and spent four years there, separated from his two children which he says was hard. Now his family is reunited in New Zealand. He says learning has been a challenge because he missed out on education in Colombia, “but I am happy, my family is reunited, I feel supported here and I am learning.”

Alisina Shirzad agrees about the support they get. When asked about any surprises he got when arriving in New Zealand, he laughs and says, “Watching a haka gave me goosebumps. When I first saw one, it was exciting. Now I want to learn a haka.”

Wintec Regional Engagement Manager, Edgar Wilson says there has never been more pressure on our refugees to get help with cultural integration and English language so they can get up to speed and embrace the challenges they are facing.

“The opportunity arose for Wintec to partner with the Refugee Orientation Centre (ROC) and provide, a fee-free, suitable learning environment to support their youth programme. It is great to see the progress the students have made through the wonderful work of volunteer tutors.”

The Refugee Orientation Trust (ROC) is based in Hamilton and their vision is to promote faster and better integration of migrants and refugees into New Zealand society. Wintec is part of a network of partners that support ROC.

ROC Director  Annie Muggeridge says New Zealand’s lockdown in 2020 created unexpected obstacles for the refugee migrant community to navigate, making integration harder than ever before.

“When lockdown was lifted in June last year, the youth that were coming to our CatchUp with Homework class at Wintec were reluctant to return. They had not taken to Zoom [online] sessions during lockdown, but when we introduced a wellbeing focus to the class, we saw numbers increase.”

The impact of isolation was addressed by responding to their wellbeing first.

“The stress on resilience paid off, it restored confidence and students started to engage with each other more. It was a reminder to us that this is a group that carries a lot of emotional scars from their past, and patience is needed to encourage and support them.”

Before Covid hit and New Zealand’s borders were closed,  the national refugee/migrant intake was going to scale up from 1,000 to 1,500 per annum,  but Muggeridge says it will take some time to get back to that figure. In 2021-22, New Zealand will welcome around 700-800 refugees and migrants.

“Most former refugees, or "forced migrants" as they would prefer to be known, have been here for over two years, and those who are in the education system know something of the systems they are exposed to. For example, more youth can understand and speak English. That doesn't mean that they are thriving. There is still a lot of work to do to overcome low confidence and show youth a future path that includes meaningful employment or further education.”

Find out more about studying English at Wintec.

Read more:
Wintec implements change programme to lift outcomes for Māori and all learners
Sabine is building her career from a love of languages

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