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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children

This hospitable country

page 85

This hospitable country

When we arrived at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, lines of grey army barracks seemed to be everywhere. We were used to camps, but this one was different. There was a beautiful freshness about it – green patches of grass, some trees and a special quality of happiness. Or, more correctly, an absence of threat and terror. There were New Zealand soldiers everywhere smiling at us and looking friendly. They were so different from the hostile, dangerous-looking adults who had been a large part of my experience in my young life.

Very soon after arriving, we were offered our first New Zealand meal. Miraculously, it seemed, all the 733 children were accommodated in several dining halls. Each child was handed a plate and as we filed past an open servery, colourful and delicious food was placed on it. I felt absolutely stunned to see so much food. This was because I remembered always being hungry, always looking for food. My reaction was to hide this food because I thought there might not be any more after this wonderful offering. But our Polish teachers circulated among us, encouraging us to eat and promising that tomorrow there would be more.

As we settled into the camp's life and routine, we found it comforting to have three meals a day. Each time I ate, it seemed as if a wonderful gift was bestowed upon me by a benevolent and loving God. Pahiatua became for me a haven of kindliness, peace and benevolence. For the first time in my life, I was receiving daily food, had a beautiful clean bed to sleep in and could have a shower.

Life became so different in other respects too. The effect of eating regular meals began to change my body. I began to want to run and jump with my friends. We started to play games and we started to laugh. I don't think I had ever laughed before. The joy of simply being alive filled my whole body. It was lovely to be, to live and to experience. Life was worth living!

Many spaces around the camp were used for games of hide and seek, daring jumps over huge puddles of water after the rain or negotiating the nearby river. As I look back on the planning and thought that the New Zealand authorities put into our reception, housing and programme of recovery for us at the camp, I am profoundly thankful for the wonderful welcome and recovery programme that enabled us to begin a new life in this country. In page 86Pahiatua, I came to appreciate the features of the country – its lush green landscape. Life in New Zealand for me had magic about it and a quality of excitement that I had never experienced before.

Then one day, one of my teachers called me and told me that I had to go to a New Zealand school because I had learned some English and could study like New Zealand school children. I was excited by the prospect of studying in a New Zealand school as I loved learning English. So a small group of four girls was dispatched to a girls' boarding school in Timaru. A new and totally incomprehensible environment enveloped us as I became one of 100 boarders. There were strict rules with punishments attached, and bells summoned us to classes, the chapel and dining room for meals.

Silence was obligatory at most times – which for me was not a problem as I could not speak English anyway. What I couldn't understand was why speaking was such a transgression. Boarding school was interesting for the learning opportunities that were offered. I loved learning English and French, and found French much easier as I already had a foundation of the language while in Iran. But English, what a headache it was – the ever-changing grammar where each rule once learned was often displaced by an exception. What a difficult but beautiful language.

We gradually made friends with many girls who often invited us to stay with their families. This was a wonderful introduction to the warm-hearted and compassionate New Zealanders who took us in and treated us as their own children. They frequently treated us to new clothes, shoes and outings, as if we were their own. Meeting New Zealand families formed a valuable link to human goodness in people everywhere, and we formed lasting and enduring friendships.

After four years at boarding school, I passed School Certificate and it was time for another transition. I was accepted for Christchurch Teachers' College to train as a primary teacher. Being a student was an interesting experience. I became one of 300 students and met many friendly young people. Life was full of adventure. We had classes in many subjects and observed children learning. This was an exciting experience and the beginning of a lifelong interest in how people learn.

After graduating, I taught in many schools. My first permanent posting was to a Maori school in Gisborne where my work was fascinating. In that school, mothers came to school with their children every day and stayed in my classroom, taking part in all learning activities. It was only later that I discovered this was the road to literacy for many adults.

Early in my teaching career, I met and married a New Zealand journalist. We had four children. It is my great regret that I did not manage to teach my page 87children Polish. I did try, but it seemed impossible to motivate them to learn a language which was not spoken in this country. I think the environment did not encourage acquaintanceship with non-English languages.

My children have all become professional people – in law, management and the arts. There have been many times when they have expressed regret at not knowing their mother's language.

In 1979, my husband was posted to London to represent the four main newspapers in New Zealand. I accompanied him there and taught in special education in central London. Living there enabled me to visit my homeland for the first time since arriving in New Zealand. It was a thrill because I found great happiness in hearing my native language spoken all around me. It was a deeply emotional experience. It also made me realise the isolation of living in New Zealand. I realised sharply and painfully that my cultural inheritance comes from Europe where my roots are.

While working in England, I had the opportunity to study at London University. I followed my interest in how people learn and gained a Diploma in Teaching based on my work in teaching children with learning disabilities, particularly in language acquisition. Later, I became interested in teaching
Irena Coates (Ogonowska) with a group of English language students at Canterbury University, New Zealand

Irena Coates (Ogonowska) with a group of English language students at Canterbury University, New Zealand

page 88English as a second language and this led me to teach English in China for two years. Now I am teaching English at the University of Canterbury English Language School. I find language learning a fascinating experience and deal with students from many different countries.

Because of my background, I am able to understand the needs of foreign students, and can facilitate their English language learning with perception and understanding based on my experience as a learner and teacher.

I frequently reflect on my life – the loss of my family, home and country in World War II, and our arrival in New Zealand as a bewildered group of war orphans. I also reflect on how fortunate I have been to have landed in this hospitable land. I salute the humanitarian concern of the New Zealand Government for having accepted us. I thank New Zealand for having given us shelter, food, education and the opportunity to build a new life.

It has not always been easy living here, especially in the years when we were raising our young family without parental support. I often longed for my mother to comfort, explain and encourage or share in the joys of my bicultural family. But through the hardship we endured and learned to be strong. Socially, New Zealand is evolving as a compassionate and tolerant multicultural society. Our roots are now deeply in New Zealand, as well as in Poland.

We received much from this country but we also gave much in return, especially our four children who are bicultural, creative and intelligent. They are contributing their energies to New Zealand's development. They have also learned from us about the destructive futility of war, the value of life and family, an appreciation of their homeland and equality of all people. We were once refugees but our children are proud citizens of this hospitable country.