When Mafa Alaloto told people in Tuvalu that she was moving to Oamaru in New Zealand’s deep south, they all told her she was mad.
Mafa is far from mad. She and her family are well-settled in the southern town and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Yes, she knows it can get cold, but she also knows how to dress for those North Otago winters.
"I did my research - a lot cheaper than Auckland - and I liked the pace of life and the fact it wasn't crowded"
Mafa, her husband Taumafai, and their children Sophia and Taumafai, came to New Zealand on holiday in 2008. They visited Mafa’s brother who lived in Oamaru and liked the lifestyle. “I did my research, checking out schools, access to services, house rentals – a lot cheaper than Auckland – and I liked the pace of life and the fact it wasn’t crowded,” Mafa says.
Mafa has also worked to help the growing number of Tuvaluan families in the town.
Shortly after, thinking of their children’s education and employment prospects, and the potential effects of climate change on low-lying Tuvalu, Mafa applied to come to New Zealand under the Pacific Access Category (PAC).
Her PAC ballot was successful and she was able to find a job offer to work in Aged Care in Oamaru. With the work permit and job offer, the family arrived in New Zealand in 2010.
Since then, while working as a caregiver in a rest home and as a support worker for CCS Disability Action, Mafa has also worked to help the growing number of Tuvaluan families in the town – taking it upon herself to ensure they settle in and the children succeed at school. “When we came to Oamaru there were four Tuvaluan families and now there are 16.”
“I’m confident asking questions and I’m not afraid to seek help, for myself or for others who might need it,” she says. “In Tuvalu I was a registered nurse and midwife, then I worked for a number of government ministries.” In short, she’s a 'doer' who relishes a challenge and has a good understanding of how bureaucracy works.
"We want to encourage our children to remain in school and then go on to tertiary study."
A year ago, Mafa offered her home for a learning support group for school students from Tuvalu and Tonga – “But I found my lounge getting smaller and smaller! So the Tongans formed their own group, and our Tuvalu group split in two – with years 6 to 10 in one, and NCEA students in the other.”
The groups meet regularly. “If a student is having trouble, say with fractions for example, then I can contact the school and arrange for the student to have some extra help. We’ve talked about bullying, and understanding the school system, and we ask for speakers to talk on a particular subject, like exams when they are coming up. We can also talk about issues in our own language if we choose to.”
Mafa has become a valuable link between the local schools and Tuvaluan families. Parents will often come to her if they have a particular issue for their children or need something explained. She will even go with parents to teacher interviews if they wish. “When people are new here they are nervous about language, filling out forms, any number of small things. I can help them and talk to them in a language they understand – I love to do that.”
Thanks to funding applications the local council has got in behind the support group, providing them with a venue to meet, and money for resources such as whiteboards, and in 2014 the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs sponsored a retreat for Oamaru’s Tuvaluan students during Language Week.
“People came from the community and did English revision with the students, covering things such as grammar and essay writing. We had someone from Waitaki Sports come and take a session on fair play and the Fale Pasifika O Aoraki Trust from Timaru did a session on anti-bullying.”
All this effort has not gone unnoticed. This year Mafa was asked to be on the selection committee for the Pasifika Youth Awards, which she says was a real privilege.
"I'm confident asking questions and I'm not afraid to seek help..."
As she shows in juggling two jobs and doing so much non-paid work, Mafa is determined to see her fellow Tuvaluans succeed. “We want to encourage our children to remain in school and then go on to tertiary study. These are first generation Tuvaluans to be educated in New Zealand and we want them to do well,” Mafa says.