Being awarded a certificate in English for Speakers of Other Languages was a huge achievement for Tseheinesh Kahsay Woreita of Tigray and has spurred her on to more study.
‘When the teacher came into the class and said “you passed your certificate for graduation” I am not surprised because I do not understand what she says.’
Only when the teacher encouraged the class to clap and told Tseheinesh again that this was a big achievement, that Tseheinesh realised that she had passed.
‘Then I understood. I was very proud.’
Tseheinesh arrived in New Zealand in 1998 after spending 15 years in a Sudanese refugee camp and before that, walking for eight days with a young child to escape her embattled country.
She and her family fled in fear as the war started and the soldiers arrived.
Tigray is bordered by Eritrea to the north, Sudan to the west and on its south and eastern borders, Ethiopian regions. It is now administered largely by Eritrea.
Most of the nearly five million people living in Tigray would speak Tigrinya, from the Semitic family of languages. It is related to Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. They would also speak Amharic which is the language of Ethiopia and is similar to Tigrinya.
So Tseheinesh, who now lives in Newtown, is learning her fourth language, after spending a scant two years at school in her own country before war made it impossible for her schooling to continue.
Today Tseheinesh lives in a Wellington City Council flat with two of her daughters and a son, works part-time in a perfumery and studies.
Last year she passed four papers including the introductory paper, writing and reading and speaking exams.
She struggled with the language. ‘In the beginning it was too hard.’ But even an injured ankle could not keep her from classes which she attends every day.
She attributes her tenacity to the encouragement of her teacher who was herself learning another language.
‘She told me “Don’t worry. You will learn. Because any language is very tricky to learn.”
She told me to write a letter and I said, ‘It’s too hard’. But when she saw my letter she said “Wow, it’s good”. She wrote “excellent” on my page.’
‘When I started I could not understand one word of English and the pronunciation was hard.’
Schooling did not come easily to Tseheinesh. She can read in her own language but writing is not as easy.
‘When I write myself, I [can] read myself but some people you can’t read because of spelling mistakes.’
Tseheinesh is continuing her studies in reading, writing and English grammar. Each week she must read one book then give a critique of it to the class of 15 or 16.
Despite the vast differences between her life then and now, Tseheinesh is happy in New Zealand.
‘I study. It’s a good life. I’m not afraid that something will happen to my children. I sleep. I don’t worry about someone coming to my house. I feel very safe. I am very happy.’
She says New Zealand is a very beautiful country and, despite the relative cold (Sudan is one of the hottest countries in the world, reaching temperatures of 55 degrees celsius in summer) ‘it’s all right. I just put on a jacket.’