“They can’t afford the high fees of other centres so we say, 'Let’s try and help you, give you that cushioning until you find your feet. Let’s not deprive the child.'”
– Rajvinder Singh, Manager, Anand Isher Educational & Community Trust.
Are you new to the country? Are you a parent juggling childcare and feeling overwhelmed by long hours of employment in Auckland’s service industry? Worried about your toddler’s early childhood education? Concerned that your child is isolated at home with grandparents who speak only Punjabi? What happens when they start primary school here? Will they fit in?
Familiar questions and a familiar scenario for many new migrant Sikh families. Being new to a country can be a challenging time for anybody.
In 2009 in the first Sikh early childhood centre was opened in New Zealand. Lynda Chanwai-Earle finds out more.
Gallery: Sikh Early Childhood Centre
Nanaksar Education Phulwari
I’m with Rajvinder Singh at the centre, seated at a little person’s table, surrounded by crayons, play dough and many curious children as Rajvinder explains how the Nanaksar Education Phulwari Childcare Centre came about. It’s a pioneering, the first of its kind centre for childcare in this country run by the Indian charity, the Anand Isher Educational & Community Trust (AIEC Trust).
There are now around 20,000 Sikhs living in the Auckland region so the need is great. The Nanaksar Education Phulwari was opened five years ago in April 2009 by the former Prime Minister Helen Clark. The centre is situated in the heart of some lovely bush and right next door to one of the largest Sikh Temples in the country. The centre is given a very favourable review by ERO with registered teaching staff and some completing training. The centre operates under the education wing of the AIEC Trust, providing for full-day education and care for up to 38 children. There are plans to open more child care centres just like this one.
On the Board of the Trust, is one man whose experience came from setting up early childcare centres in South Auckland over 15 years ago. Harinda Pal Luthera says that ironically no Indian children attended, even when the parents were offered free services. The Sikh grandparents refused to let their grandchildren come, fearful that the children might lose their Sikh customs, lose the faith. The grandparents were as isolated as the children.
Now many of these grandparents attend the temple, congregate to help out at the daily langar (shared community lunch – open to the public, by the way) and then pop next door to say hello to their grandchildren. The grandparents also attend adult English language classes held by the AIEC Trust too. It’s a win-win situation for the whole community.
Manurewa is a diverse, multi-ethnic community. The Nanaksar Education Phulwari serves not just new migrants within the Sikh community in Manurewa, but the wider community too. Children from Maori, Pacifika and Pakeha families attend as well.
How do non-Indian children fit in?
“Very well, they love the Indian food and they learn to appreciate visits to the temple, just like our visits to the local marae, it’s a chance for meaningful cultural exchange.” Great that it’s happening at such a young age too, I think.
“LMNO?” Asks one inquisitive little girl, looking up at me and pointing to the letters as she tries to make sense of the English alphabet. “Where’s LMNO?” Gurleen Kohili is Indian, and a teacher with the centre. She laughs and explains, “The way we sing the English alphabet makes this little girl think LMNO is one letter.”
The teaching staff are loyal. The centre has been opened for five years now and most of the teachers have been there from the beginning. Gurleen loves working here, she says it feels like home. Having the temple so close by is a bonus. The children are learning to respect and celebrate different cultures and faiths.
And on the subject of being multi-lingual, many new Sikh children start with only Punjabi. By the time they’re ready for school they can speak English, Te Reo, Hindi...
“It’s taken a while – this is knowledge, this is ability for the brain. Imagine a ten-year-old Indian child who’s growing up with two or three languages here, knowing their own language as well, as compared to a Pakeha child growing up with only their language.” Says Rajvinder.
“For example a child who knows only English has only 26 letters of the alphabet and the sound they make. A child who knows Punjabi also knows 35 letters and the sound they make, so they already have a huge advantage. It’s quite an amazing thing that these children grow up with such a strong skill set, this is an asset for them, and this would be the same for Maori children or Pacifika children – it opens the horizon for them. They’re not narrowly focused.”
Praises for the centre are being sung by one of the parents, Ravinder Singh who works in the service industry. His two daughters attend and he does not fear that they will lose their strong Sikh values or the Punjabi language while learning to integrate with their new country.
One thing you cannot do when you visit the Nanaksar Education Phulwari (right next to the Manurewa Sikh Temple) is to leave with an empty stomach. Ever hospitable the Sikh way is to share, especially food.
After participating in generous servings of langar (the community’s shared lunch comprising of delicious vegetarian Indian dishes ... yum!), I’m finally on my way. Meanwhile it’s naptime for lots of clever, multilingual little people.