Swimming classes make a splash for refugees, migrants

Esther always wanted to learn how to swim when she was a child.  

But it wasn’t until she arrived in New Zealand in 2007 as a refugee from Myanmar that she got the chance. 

In 2019, she started going to weekly swim lessons, run through Drowning Prevention Auckland’s (DPA) Gender Specific Water Competence programme. 

The programme, currently held at Te Atatu Swimsation in Auckland, is designed for women, and specifically for women who can’t attend public swimming lessons for cultural or religious reasons.  

“We felt comfortable to learn in the women-only pool as we were brought up in that way. Women always learn these kinds of activities separate from men,” Esther said.  

Swimming lesson with Esther

Swimming lesson with Esther. Photo: Supplied/Drowning Prevention Auckland

Esther is part of the WISE Collective project run by Belong Aotearoa, a non-profit working to address barriers to settlement for newcomers, migrants and former refugees. The women in WISE identified swimming as a skill they wanted to learn, so WISE Collective connected with Drowning Prevention Auckland to help set the programme up. 

Since completing the programme, Esther said she often goes swimming three times a week and goes to the pool with her children and husband to make sure they have water skills. 

For Drowning Prevention Auckland aquatic educator Leilani Fuemana, Esther’s experience is one of the success stories to come out of the all-women's swimming course.        

“Esther’s story is a success story for us in how she has taken her learnings and has transferred them into other areas of her life with her family and friends,” Fuemana said.  

The gender specific swimming programme has been running since 2005 and was established after a gap in health services and promotion was identified for refugee and new migrant communities. 

Fuemana said that within Auckland the Asian population – and new settlers in particular – were at high risk of preventable drownings. 

“[The programme] is trying to angle drowning prevention education to women, so they can filter it down to their husbands, to their families and friends,” she said. 

Just like Esther, many of the migrant and refugee women who attend the course have little or no experience swimming and often their cultural or religious background means opportunities to learn have been limited. Within New Zealand itself, there are often added barriers that are hard to overcome for some womewanting to learn how to swim.  

Esther Thang

Esther with her son, Thang. Photo: Kirsty Sharp/Asia New Zealand Foundation

A recent research report from Waikato University’s Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahamd highlighted these barriers that women face when it comes to participating in any kind of sport. 

Their Building cultural inclusion in sport report was focused on Muslim women and their experiences, but within the gender specific swimming programme, women across other cultures and religions faced similar barriers.   

Thorpe and Ahmad found one of the biggest barriers for women can be the struggle to find a safe space to practice sports in. The difficulty wasn’t only in finding a women-only space, but also in finding a space where their culture or religion is respected. 

Fuemana took part in the research, after two local regional sports trusts she works with – Sport Waitakere and Harbour Sport – both told her about Thorpe and Ahmad’s work. Fuemana was interviewed for the project around her experience running an all-women's water competency course and the importance of a programme like hers.  

She said it was good to realise the programme was at the forefront of a push to build inclusive spaces, but she also said there was more work to be done. 

She was setting up cultural competency training for staff at the swimming programme “just to up our game a bit” and had taken “baby steps” towards expanding the programme into high schools.  

As it stands, the staff working with the women can already see the impact something as simple as swimming lessons can have – Fuemana recalled feedback from one of the coordinators who had been working with a woman who feared the water.  

“This was a woman who had a recent history of trauma, very limited English and a lot of difficulty learning to trust people,” the coordinator reported. 

But gradually, over a month, the coordinator worked with her, slowly encouraging her to step into the water, to float with a lifejacket on, and to put her head under water, a first for the woman.  

“[The coordinator] could see healing taking place,” Leilani said.   

Gender Specific Water Compe...

Staff at Drowning Prevention Auckland work hard to create a comfortable space for women, especially at the first class of a programme, when women may be more hesitant about learning to swim.   

“In the first session, everyone's really quiet for the first 10 to 15 minutes. Then after that, they're just really loud because they're laughing, having fun,” Fuemana said. 

“Then what we do is we break into small groups, so there's not just 20 of you together. You get put into intimate groups, where we tell each other a little bit about ourselves.” 

Simple steps like these meant that for Esther, one of the important things she took away from the course – besides learning to swim – were the friendships she made.  

“I had so much fun when we learned swimming,” she said, “[I] got good friendships with other women and learning swimming gave me confidence to do my other works.” 

- Asia Media Centre