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From Afghanistan mission to refugee education in NZ

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

From Afghanistan mission to refugee education in NZ

Eight years after a life-changing army mission to Afghanistan, James Lowry’s Christmas wish is to be able to help refugee children coming to New Zealand get ahead with their education.

The Palmerston North schoolteacher is hoping for 1000 people to donate just a $1 a week to his newly launched charitable trust, the For Better Initiative, to develop new programmes and resources for refugee children. His vision is to build equitable education based on fairness and inclusiveness.

Mr Lowry was just 19 when he was deployed to Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province with the New Zealand Army. His lingering memory of the local children pleading for pens for their schoolwork stayed with him. Eight years on, and with several university qualifications under his belt, he is making his vision a reality through the trust, which aims to “dismantle barriers to education”.

The Massey University teaching graduate says that having children with refugee backgrounds in his first year at Palmerston North Normal Intermediate rekindled his memories of children in Afghanistan.

Kids just wanted pens in war-torn Afghanistan

As a rifleman with 2nd First Battalion in Bravo Company, he spent six months of 2009 involved in aid projects delivering resources to schools, in dam and hydro power reconstruction, and reconnaissance for road infrastructure development and engineering projects. He was not caught up in military conflict and found the locals were friendly and hospitable. It was the children who made the biggest impression.

“Every town we went to, every village, we were flocked by kids and they were asking for one thing – ‘pen bakshish’, which is ‘can I please have a pen?’. That, and water. And it’s always stuck in my head,” he says. “They wanted a pen to learn or to draw, to have fun. It was their thirst for knowledge – that gave me an inkling to be a teacher.”

Back in New Zealand, he did double degrees – a Bachelor of Arts majoring in politics and a Bachelor of Business Studies majoring in finance at Massey’s Manawatū campus – then a year working in corporate banking in Auckland before the calling to teach lured him back to do a Post Graduate Diploma in Teaching (Primary).

His placement during that year led to a job, and the presence of refugee pupils got him thinking. He did some reading on the topic of refugee learning and realised there are some gaps that could be addressed.

“The journey that the refugee children go through to get to a settlement country is quite a long, drawn out process. Throughout that process, their lives are disjointed and gaps can appear in their learning,” Mr Lowry says. “They are pulled out of school at age six, for example, then get re-integrated into an education system in a new country at aged nine, 10 or 11. So learning in those gap years is quite sporadic.”

And so the trust was born. It aims to work with schools to design and deliver learning programmes and materials tailor-made for their refugee pupils, rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It has already received funds this year towards the For Better Initiative English and Foundation Pathways Bursary Award for tertiary study offered at Massey’s Manawatū campus .

The trust is currently fundraising and turning to crowd sourcing for its Barrier Breaker School Fund. It plans to run a pilot programme in one school next year, and is seeking schools in New Zealand’s refugee resettlement towns and cities (Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Dunedin, Nelson) to submit a proposal outlining what their needs are.

For Better, which includes Mr Lowry and his wife, Jessica Lowry (also a teacher), and David Stevanus, will bring together education and immigration specialists to work with schools to create learning programmes. Long term, they hope to build a knowledge hub based on the work at For Better so it can be shared with other schools.

Having a brother-in-law who came to New Zealand at a young age as a refugee from Cambodia has also heightened his awareness and appreciation of the kinds of struggles refugees face, he says. His brother-in-law, now a successful Massey University accountancy graduate, is one of several informal advisors to the project.

A birth has made it a special year for Mr Lowry. He became a first-time father to baby girl Bowie, who arrived just after the For Better Initiative was launched.

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