5 Dec 2022

From 'zero' English to jobs in months: Ukrainian refugees take language classes in NZ

11:52 am on 5 December 2022
Lidiia Dubova, her husband Garri, and son Andrey in New Zealand.

Lidiia Dubova, son Andrey and her husband Garri in New Zealand. Photo: Supplied

Ukrainan refugees who could barely say the English alphabet upon arrival in Aotearoa have since learned enough to get jobs.

The visa-holders have gradually joined Mānukau Institute of Technology/Te Pūkenga classes since May - to complete Level 1 Certificates.

Ukrainians have been open about struggles to find jobs and housing here this year, and some say they have been turned away from social welfare offices.

So far, 1103 special visas have been granted since March, but 489 people have reached Aotearoa.

Fifty newly arrived Ukrainians are learning English through Mānukau - not just from Auckland - some Zoom in from Christchurch, Wellington, Upper Hutt, Tauranga, Raglan and Napier.

Lidiia Dubova arrived in Aotearoa with her husband Garri in April.

They had fled Crimea, via a long trip through Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic.

"This Russian occupation, we see [sic] military people very close to our home with weapons. It was scary," Dubova said.

The couple joined the polytech lessons. Garri did level 1, Lidiia, a more advanced class.

It was enough to get her an office job helping with accounts.

"It was very interesting for me because I am a mathemetician," she told RNZ.

"It was my lucky moment ... I have a good job."

Many of the level 1 students have picked up jobs, picking berries and running checkouts.

Vasyl Pozdniakov was doing gardening work.

"I still know a little about words, I cannot fully express my opinion, but ... I have begun to understand better those who speak, and in the right place I can say: 'Yes, I understand'," he said.

He hoped to progress to building work when he had learned more English, and planned to return to classes next February.

Another student, Krystyna, was among those who knew "zero" English upon arrival in Aotearoa.

"I managed to find a job, understand and start communicating at a basic level. On behalf of all Ukrainians, I sincerely thank you for the help and friendly relations," Krystyna said

Their classmate, Nataliia, said the classes helped her feel "much more confident", then she too found work.

Co-ordinator Vanessa Lewis began organising the free lessons not only to improve language but also connect Ukrainians.

"They have come a long way, they couldn't say that they were Ukrainian, they couldn't say their date of birth, they couldn't say days and dates. It's just amazing."

She felt "very privileged" to be helping.

"They're always laughing and joking, they've got a great sense of humour. Even right from the beginning, they really gelled and tried really hard."

After class, the tutors hopped offline and let classmates talk privately about the war and adjusting to Aotearoa.

Students have become good friends, and meet up outside of class.

Some had heartbreaking news here - learning for example, Russian soldiers were living in their homes.

Other students have since returned to Ukraine.

But Lewis remained in touch on Zoom, even meeting one man's furry friend.

"He'd talked about his cat when he was here, his cat was in Poland, it obviously meant a lot to him. And he showed me his cat, which was lovely."

Classes will be back up and running next year, but for now, students are practising their holiday greetings and farewells - "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year".

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