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Labour MP for Manukau East Jenny Salesa believes Tongan families have better lives in Oamaru than they would have in their home country or centres such as Auckland, but still face their share of challenges in North Otago.

Mrs Salesa, Labour’s spokeswoman for skills and training and associate spokeswoman for health and education, visited Oamaru last Thursday with Dunedin North MP David Clark.

They spoke with principals at Pembroke School, Oamaru North School and Oamaru Intermediate School, all of which have a high percentage of Tongan pupils, and also visited Fale Pasifika O Aoraki, a Pasifika support group.

Mrs Salesa, who moved to New Zealand at the age of 16 and is the first Tongan to be elected an MP outside of Tonga, expressed surprise at the large number of Tongan children at Oamaru’s schools.

She said one particular theme came through when she spoke with principals about their Tongan pupils.

“The themes that were similar between Oamaru primary [schools] and this intermediate school is the issue of lateness .. we were told it was especially bad on Mondays.”

She was told that was down to factors that included families travelling out of town on weekends, church activities and children staying up late.

Another challenge was that many children arrived in New Zealand not being fluent in either Tongan or English, which impacted on their education and made teaching them more difficult.

Staff at Fale Pasifika O Aoraki talked to Mrs Salesa about some of the issues Tongan families in Oamaru faced, issues she said were similar to those seen in her electorate.

“A lot of the families that they see live in overcrowded conditions. Quite a number of the families have come through on work visas directly from Tonga – they’re the ones that have attracted a lot of their other relatives from Auckland that come here because it’s much more affordable to live here.

“Quite a few of the Tongan families know they have a much better life in Oamaru, because the rent compared to Auckland is much more affordable.”

She said other reasons Oamaru attracted Tongan families included quality education options and employment opportunities for unskilled workers, such as at Alliance Group’s plant at Pukeuri, which employed a large number of Tongans.