Auckland’s UMMA Trust, which was established in Auckland 18 years ago, provides services for former refugee and migrant communities, with a focus on the wellbeing of Muslim women, children and families who are socially and economically disadvantaged.

UMMA is an Arabic word that means – a world Muslim community. And while the Trust supports former refugees and migrants by reaching them through their own cultures and languages, their programmes are designed to support the challenging process of settlement.

The Umma Trust board is made up entirely of trustees from refugee backgrounds and employs staff from the refugee communities. All work together with community leaders to create a happy family life as well as success in education and work – for each family.

One of the programmes, started just two years ago, is a school holidays programme for mothers and children.

Anne Lee, a manager at UMMA says that a big problem for former refugee women is isolation. Eighty percent speak minimal English with some preliterate in their own language when they come here, and without support most are confined to their own homes. It takes many years to learn English and learn how to access information about where they could take their children. Their fear of driving on motorways (even if they have been helped to get a licence) just increases their isolation.

Added to this, a communication gap grows between parents and children, who are usually rapidly learning English and becoming comfortable in our culture. “Research shows,” says Anne, “that in refugee families with school-aged children, interaction between parent and child is often less than eight minutes a day, and it is mostly directional – ‘eat your dinner’, or ‘go and clean your teeth’. It is not interactive. There is also the problem that in many cultures, there is no awareness of the value of talking to children. So the aim of this holiday programme is to build relationships between parents and their children through common mainstream activities.”

The Trust organises shared cars or picks the families up in vans and takes them to places like Kelly Tarlton’s, ClipNClimb or Chipmonks, all places with an entry fee but one that is paid for with Foundation North funding. Everybody has fun, takes photos on their phone, then when they get home there is a shared experience, looking at the pictures and talking together about what they have seen or done. “It gives them a richer language,” says Anne “something they can share with their children, in both languages.”

When the programme started last year there were 80 children under 12 years and 28 parents taking part.

Staff say that after a while you can see a real change in the mothers, they are driving their children to parts of Auckland that they have never been to before and getting to know other women. The impact is particularly noticeable for solo mothers, who are often not well accepted into their community, so without support some families become especially isolated.

The second programme, the Mother’s Lunch Group, is run every Wednesday for 40 weeks a year, from 12.00-2.00pm at the Wesley Centre in Mt Roskill. The women can be picked up by van or share rides, and the Trust’s staff, along with some of the 20 plus UMMA volunteers, representing all the countries from which the refugees come, provide translation services. It is an informal session where
women can chat, share food, and make friends. There is always an invited speaker to run workshops on subjects such as parenting, pregnancy, education, employment, housing, training, safety in
your home, basic first aid and budgeting. All the women are also helped to pass their driver licence, both restricted and their full licence.

The UMMA Trust works in partnership with other agencies. For example, there is a close relationship with English Language Partners, the Puketepapa Community Driving School provides restricted driving practice in dual controlled cars, and all the speakers on the lunch programme who come from specialist agencies such as the DHB.

Getting training and employment is just one of the new opportunities that former refugee women can look forward to. The Trust has a relationship with Selwyn College, which has an ECE centre for refugee families studying at the college’s special Refugee Education for Adults and Families (REAF) programme. This means that women studying for their ECE certificate can get volunteer work, giving them the experience they need to get a paid job.

Umma Trust supports students from the refugee communities throughout their social work degrees. Once again there is a ready-made internship available at the Trust then, once they are registered, they are helped to move onto other agencies – leaving a space for another trainee at UMMA.

Others have decided to study for a Mental Health Diploma or Business Studies.

“There’s a ripple effect amongst our ladies,” says Anne, “When one succeeds, others feel – well I can do that too. A Somali lady who came to our lunch had only been in New Zealand for two weeks, and within three weeks she had her licence. She told me – well I saw that a black lady from Ethiopia was running the programme, so I thought if she can do it, so can I, so I stayed up night after night learning it!

“A whole lot of work goes into supporting families, talking through issues and giving support to their own communities. For example, if a family wants to buy a car, our social workers help them, saving them from bad buys and loan sharks. All the staff have themselves been refugees. They have all walked in the shoes of refugee families that we work with. They understand it right to the bone and in their hearts what it takes to settle in New Zealand, and they can help them achieve it.”

When the March 15 event happened in Christchurch last year, the Muslim community called UMMA Trust staff and volunteers to Christchurch so that they could help.