Our staff are doing their bit to give back to the community they love by volunteering their time at local charities and then writing about the experience. Reporter Sonya Bateson worked at the Tauranga Regional Multicultural Council as part of the weekly series, the Bay of Plenty Times Gives Back.

Imagine trying to function in a society where everyone speaks, looks and acts differently to anything you've ever experienced.

Tauranga Regional Multicultural Council (TRMC) aims to help new Tauranga residents in this situation adapt to their new lives and become happy, well adjusted locals.

Families move to New Zealand with the hope of making better lives for themselves in a more tolerant and caring country, only to be confronted with language and cultural barriers that can be hard to surmount.


The council and its volunteers not only help migrants settle in Tauranga and the Bay, they also help these people preserve their cultural identities.

"It's about promoting diversity in a positive way," office co-ordinator Janet Smith says.

TRMC offers a variety of services including English conversation classes, Justice of the Peace sessions, a free appointment with a lawyer and interpretation services, as well as organising a raft of events and activities to make newcomers feel welcome in Tauranga and help them fit in.

The council is staffed by two part-time paid employees in its Historic Village office as well as a raft of volunteers who chip in where they can.

Newcomers networks

"From my way of thinking, the most important services we offer here are the newcomers networks and the English classes."

Janet Smith has been with TRMC for four years.

She began as a volunteer and then took up the paid position of office administrator for 28 hours a week.

Mrs Smith is involved with much of the goings on at TRMC as well as helping out behind the scenes.

"I spend my days checking emails and there's quite often a variety of requests in that.

"I spend quite a bit of time with the newcomers group helping them meet new people and network, and help them maximise their settlement outcomes.

"It's a matter of sometimes having to fill a vacancy, say if an English teacher can't come in, I help by taking a class myself, although it's not my preferred method - it's a bit hard trying to teach and answer phones at the same time."

Mrs Smith has helped groups from ethnic communities with advice on how to become incorporated societies and often points people in the right direction with employment disputes.

There are always events to help organise, such as Living in Harmony events about eight times a year and the 20th birthday celebration that was held on Wednesday night.

The annual Multicultural Festival is always a big event on TRMC's calender and takes a lot of co-ordination.

A multicultural football team is the next item on Mrs Smith's agenda.

Called Ethkick, the five-a-side football tournament will help promote diversity in a positive way and help people to settle in Tauranga while retaining a bit of their culture - and feeling okay about this.

It also comes with the added benefit of increasing health outcomes for migrants by getting them into sport.

Mrs Smith also spends much of her time searching for funding for TRMC and filling out grant applications.

At annual planning meetings, the council often talks about its "golden summer".

Mrs Smith said this would be to have a migrant centre to accommodate all of the council's services and make it a one-stop-shop that was easy for newcomers to find.

Avoid the pitfalls

English is a puzzling language.

The idiosyncrasies of the language become apparent to me while listening in to an English conversation lesson.

Around the table were volunteer Peter Jackson (Sir Peter, the others joke), a man from Korea, a woman from Vietnam and a woman from China.

All three are at different levels. All can write and read English well but when it comes to conversation, the three are often left puzzled by the huge variety of meanings one word can have, the pronunciation of letter combinations strange to their Asian tongues and the Kiwi slang, so different than that of other English-speaking countries.

One of the best examples of this is when the group breaks for morning tea. Mr Jackson asks the Korean man to get the small box used to collect the $2 donation for tea and coffee.

The man doesn't understand at first, then asks Mr Jackson if it is a container.

"Yes, or a tin because it is made from tin," Mr Jackson said.

This sparks a discussion about containers.

Mr Jackson said they can come in all different shapes and sizes, and are used to "contain" things, a word the three look up in a dictionary.

Mr Jackson asks his students if any have come upon a word or phrase they did not understand.

One wants the phrase "run into" explained. Mr Jackson describes it as meeting someone you know, such as in a supermarket or a shop.

He then explains this phrase can also be used in a physical context and mimes running into a chair, or to talk about running into a shop.

Another said someone had described the weather as "a bit nappy" and wanted to know what this meant.

After investigation, Mr Jackson realised the word was nippy but with the Kiwi accent, the subtle difference in sound was hard for an Asian ear to distinguish.

Promote understanding

Mr Jackson is an immigrant himself, although he's from an English speaking background.

He grew up in East Africa and moved to New Zealand after marrying his Kiwi wife 13 years ago.

Now retired, Mr Jackson teaches conversational English classes to migrants to help people achieve their plans and dreams.

"My feeling is the better that people can speak English, the easier it is for them to settle. We lose a lot of those problems we might have in a society from more understanding of each other."

Mr Jackson also has his name on TRMC's books as a Swahili translator, his second language.

He said every class was different, especially as different people turned up to each one. He usually has between four and 10 people in each lesson and all are of differing abilities.

"Communication is a biggie, most of us speak English in New Zealand - some a little better than others. Many of the migrants are only here for two years while their child is on an exchange at a primary school, which will help them get a better job in future. The mother is here while the father is back in their home country working and sending money here."

Mr Jackson said he has learned a lot about other cultures since being involved at TRMC, particularly from Asian people.

He hoped to explore Asia in future after having his interest piqued by the people he speaks to.

Translation service

In a small attached office, Anouk van der Vlugt co-ordinates the Bay of Plenty Interpreting Service (BOPIS).

People who speak English as a second language are recruited by TRMC to help out with interpreting for a huge range of reasons. Sometimes assistance is needed in emergency situations with St John or other respondents, sometimes it's for help dealing with Government organisations.

BOPIS has about 20 interpreters available that speak Chinese, Farsi, French, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Kiribati, Afghani, Cantonese, Maori, Dutch, Filipino, German, sign language, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Urdu, Tongan and Vietnamese.

"It was a response by TRMC responding to the like of ambulance officers getting calls in the middle of the night wanting a translator.

"The interpreters are people that have migrated here and normally do it as a supplementary income and have another qualification in something else ranging from social work to teaching to business and accounting.

Most of the interpreters got a fee for their services, sometimes as a set rate or sometimes as a koha (gift), which was usually enough to pay for travel.

All interpreters are interviewed and vetted before being put on BOPIS' books because of the nature of the work, which can involve vulnerable people or Government agencies.

Mrs van der Vlugt gets paid for 10 hours of work a week, although she often puts in more hours than this as she is always on call.

She is also a full-time mum and is studying law through the University of Waikato in Tauranga.

Mrs van der Vlugt, like Mrs Smith, began as a volunteer and then found herself working for TRMC.

"I volunteered because I wanted to get experience with community work and and with my law studies, I'm looking at advocacy and human rights issues."

Mrs van der Vlugt does not speak another language but as she is from Sri Lanka, grew up in Australia and married a Dutch New Zealander, she felt she was a good fit. "This particular organisation is really rewarding in the sense I get to meet so many different cultures short of getting on a plane and travelling."