Integration vs assimilation: In conversation with Patrick O’Connor, director of PEETO, the Multi-Cultural Learning Centre, Christchurch
It's been 27 years since you established PEETO. Please take us through the journey.
During my younger days, I travelled and worked in Africa, Greece, France and London. My interactions with various indigenous communities, left a deep impression in my mind. I developed an understanding of the various employment, social, cultural and language needs that migrants and refugees have when they come to a new country. As I was always an English language teacher in polytech, university as well as privately, I decided to open my own school when I finally came back to New Zealand for good. That's how PEETO started.
We specialise in the teaching of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and literacy acquisition programmes. We also offer cultural orientation programmes, and employment advocacy and guidance with seeking, gaining and maintaining employment.
With more than 170 ethnicities in Christchurch now, our vision is to impart our students – which are now touching 230 in numbers – holistic knowledge of the English language, and positively influence their ability to function in terms of employment, housing and education.
Our staff strength is 15, and 98 percent of our students are permanent residents. Teachers at PEETO have a combined teaching experience of over 130 years, which argues well for our students.
In our cultural orientation programmes, we share with our students the Kiwi way of doing things and the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi.
So what's your teaching philosophy?
I look at it as a two-way learning process. I focus more on what can you teach us. Instead of the other way round.
We actually need a change in the mindset in New Zealand. We should get rid of the label “burden”. Instead, we should view refugees and migrants as a beautiful resource addition to New Zealand.
Since you have worked with refugees and migrants for decades, what are the areas we have done good? And where we have left much to be desired?
Our resettlement policy has generally been good. In terms of the housing, education and health outcomes, we have done good, I would say.
Where we have not been very good is welcoming people with open arms.
We need to understand who is coming, their profiles. And tailor our budgets accordingly. All four – local and central governments, stakeholders and the community, need to play their part in this.
What about providing employment to refugees and migrants? Have we done well in that regard?
"...the word assimilation should be consigned to the dustbins of history..."
No, we can definitely do much better. But employment is very closely linked with language skills. It’s a key requirement. That’s why at PEETO we stress on language as well as cultural orientation programmes.
You have to know how to approach an interview in New Zealand. Understand the official environment here. Learn the importance of small talk in offices. Even in between you and your superiors.
That’s not to say that there is no bias amid employers against employing migrants and refugees. Like in every society, here too, exists a continuum ranging from downright racism to just being uncomfortable and worrying whether the new employee from other culture may fit in during conversations at the morning coffee.
Lastly, you have mentioned in your earlier public interactions, the difference between assimilation and integration. Can you elaborate on that for the benefit of our readers?
I absolutely despise the word assimilation. I think it should be consigned to the dustbins of history. A similar such word is tolerance.
These words inherently mean that there is one preferred way of doing things, and everyone should adhere to that. Among developed nations, France is the only one, which went on the path of assimilation due to its cultural arrogance and it’s been an absolute failure there. What we should do instead, is integration and acceptance. A rather simplistic analogy is that of a soup and fried rice. In a soup, you can’t taste the ingredients separately, which is possible in fried rice.
I want our New Zealand society to be like fried rice.