Full of smiling faces
If a smile is a sign of a happy Kiwi then Paramsothy Jeyakumar (Jeya) and his family have well and truly settled here.
Three years ago Jeya was seeking ‘peace and harmony’ and a new country that could foster his career and embrace his family. He found New Zealand on the internet. “I didn’t know anything about New Zealand at first,” he says. “But it had everything we were looking for. No fear, less crime, no corruptions, no racism and equal opportunities for women.”
Within two months of ‘finding’ New Zealand online, Jeya had left his homeland of Sri Lanka to take up a postgraduate scholarship at Massey University and complete his PhD in Soil Science. Six months later his wife Vaithehi and two children Ganan and Viburahi joined him in Palmerston North.
“New Zealand is full of smiling faces - it was the first thing we noticed.”
The ‘peace and harmony’ they discovered on their arrival took some adjustment. The simple pleasures of feeling safe while driving at night or walking in town during the day were new experiences for the family.
They had left the densely populated city of Jaffna in a country that had had its share of civil unrest. On arriving in New Zealand the family had to adjust to a quieter life and friendly police officers. “We were nervous of people in uniform. It took us a while to understand that New Zealand policemen and security guards are nice.”
The quality of Jeya’s work during his three year doctoral study was rewarded with a New Zealand Education grant to speak at a soils conference in Mexico. He was also named the top “Soil and Environmental Science Student” (Quinphos Award) in 2009 from all of New Zealand’s Universities. He attended a World Soils Conference in Australia and published several research papers. “I really enjoyed my doctoral study and developed my social integration through playing key roles with the INR [Institute of Natural Resources] Social Club and the PNCC [Palmerston North City Council] citizen forum”, he says.
At the completion of his studies focusing on heavy metals and their effects on bio solids amended soil, Jeya was offered a full time job and now works as a Post Doctoral Scientist at Plant and Food Research in Palmerston North.
Vaithehi (Vai) admits she was bored and a little lonely during the first few weeks of arriving in a new country. “During the day the children were at school and Jeya was at university. I needed to get out and meet people.”
Vai, a qualified secondary school maths teacher mustered the courage to visit the Manawatü Multicultural Centre. “I was really nervous but I soon felt very welcome. There were a lot of smiley faces and I quickly gained confidence and made new friends.” Within two weeks Vai was tutoring other migrants in Basic English.
Vai says she learnt a lot about living in a new country at the Centre and especially enjoyed interacting with people from a diverse range of cultures.
In the meantime, she was applying for “every teaching job available.” It was a year long stint as a relief teacher in early childhood centres that enticed Vai to redirect her teaching skills. “Early childhood education is a very different environment,” she says. “The children are all so cute and lovely.”
After undergoing a tough selection process, Vai was accepted for the three year Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood) programme at Massey University. This year she began her second year of full-time study.
“By helping others settle in a new country I have learnt a lot too- I was learning by doing. I also knew what the refugees were going through as I had experienced it myself.
Vai’s involvement with the Multicultural Centre has steadily grown since her first tentative visit three years ago. She is now a trained volunteer support person for Refugee Services Aotearoa and has helped several Bhutanese families settle in Palmerston North. “By helping others settle in a new country I have learnt a lot too,” she says. “I was learning by doing. I also knew what the refugees were going through as I had experienced it myself.”
The shiny new drum kit in the corner of the living room is fourteen year old Ganan’s pride and joy. It is one of the many new interests he packs into his teenage life. The small but productive vegetable garden in the backyard is also under his care.
Ganan is a Year 10 student at Palmerston North Boys’ High School and has been selected for the Accelerated Programme. Apart from his obvious academic talents, Ganan is a keen chess, cricket and water polo player and (of course) he is learning to play the drums.
“My school gives its pupils great encouragement to take risks and try new things,” he says. Ganan felt immediately accepted at his new school as many cultures are represented there. “It was easy to make friends. I feel like the whole school is my friend.”
Eleven year old Viburahi (Vibu) attends Palmerston North Normal Intermediate School and is thriving in the supportive school environment. Her proud father says she has gained a great deal of confidence and is heavily involved in the school’s leadership programme and has won her a fair share of Principal’s awards.
“I am very happy with how well we have all settled in. I have been surprised by how much confidence the family has gained,” says Jeya. “In Sri Lanka, Vai would never go to the bank, but she does now because she feels safe.”
The family retains their religious practice by meeting and sharing prayers once a month with 12 other Hindu families. The group also prepare and serve traditional Sri Lankan food each month as part of the ‘cultural day/elders food programme’ at the local Salvation Army.
“If you are honest and prepared to work hard, it is easy to adapt to life in New Zealand,” says Jeya. “Your efforts are appreciated.”
He says New Zealand society has impressed him. “Each and every person is treated the same. There is respect and a genuine interest to learn about other cultures.”
“The world needs more of that. I love it here and I want to stay in New Zealand until my last breath,” he says smiling broadly.