Building a supportive community

Whanganui’s International Women’s Group has been meeting regularly for 30 years.



On a spring morning, Whanganui is full of charm. Flowers bloom in planter boxes on the street, business owners and passersby greet one another by name, and down on the river the paddle steamer Waimarie waits for the day’s tourists.

Yet none of this matters when you are lonely, and when Leila arrived from Iran, she was miserable.

Other than her husband, she knew hardly anyone. Her English was hesitant, and for many months she missed her home and family intensely. She spent a lot of time in tears. But things have changed. “Now I think she is happy,” says migrant Rana Ghamri.

Rana and Leila are at the International Women’s Group run by the Whanganui branch of English Language Partners.

“I have morning tea with Leila every Tuesday and she goes to English language classes too,” say Rana, who arrived in Whanganui with her husband and family about nine years ago from Abu Dhabi.

“As part of the group, we all try to help one another, because all of us are far away from our countries and our families and we are all learning to live with another language. It can be hard.”

The International Women’s Group group has met at English Language Partners for more than 30 years, says Jane Blinkhorne, the Whanganui English Language Partners manager, and it regularly attracts more than 20 people.

The group brings together migrants (from countries that currently include China, India, Philippines, Japan, Cambodia, Egypt, Palestine, the Netherlands and Croatia) with members of the community, including current and past tutors.

The group is partly about improving people’s English, says Jane, and partly about building the community bonds that help migrants and their families settle successfully.

Many of the women are the partners of the skilled migrants that smaller communities such as Whanganui need: migrants like Rana’s husband, a doctor at the local hospital. “For settlement to be successful, every member of the family has to be happy,” says Jane.

The weekly meetings follow a set structure: people introduce themselves in their own language; Jane talks about what is going on around town; there is a speaker or activity; and the meeting ends with tea, coffee and home baking.

Today Jane talks about how to vote in the general election, the arrival of daylight saving, a running race put on by the local harrier club, local markets and community education. Then she introduces New Zealand slang as the language topic of the day, distributing handouts with 20 expressions for people to discuss.

In one group, former tutor Penny Robinson finds herself discussing the term ‘ankle-biter’, and helpfully displays a photo on her phone of a grandchild ‘ankle-biter’ of her own.

In another group, Marie Fore is talking about a ‘smidgen’. Marie’s career as a tutor began in Waiouru many years ago, when a Chinese family running the local restaurant asked her to help them learn English, and she has former students all over New Zealand. Aged 80, she comes along because it is one of the things that keeps her young.

Elsewhere, the expression being discussed is ‘wet blanket’.  “All happy, but a person who is not happy,” suggests someone. “Someone who spoils the fun,” says someone else.  Words such as ‘wicked’, which have dictionary meanings and slang meanings that are very different, are particularly complicated.  The conversations go back and forth; people are having fun.

For migrants who settle successfully, Whanganui is a good place to make a life. In Abu Dhabi, Rana Ghamri and her family were well off; they moved because they wanted a better future for their children. Nine years into her settlement journey, it looks like the right choice. Three of her children are currently at university: one studying towards a PhD in genetics, another studying medicine, and a third studying health sciences in preparation for medical school.

For Leila, life is getting better. She has made friends at the gym and through a local department store. She has found a network of friends and supporters such as Rana through English  Language Partners. Her English has improved and she has the courage to use it in everyday conversation.

“It’s not good English, but better than before,” she says.

Her settlement journey continues.

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