Former migrant easing way for new arrivals

Waitaki Multicultural Council chairwoman Maria Buldain now helps other migrants feel welcome in...
Waitaki Multicultural Council chairwoman Maria Buldain now helps other migrants feel welcome in Oamaru. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The Oamaru Mail introduces Migrant Musings, a series of interviews with newcomers making Waitaki their home. With many new people migrating to Waitaki each month, we will bring stories of their experiences to help understand the different cultures that make up our community. This week Waitaki Multicultural co-ordinator Maddy Maxwell talks to Maria Buldain from Uruguay.


Maddy: It’s a pleasure to interview Maria, chairwoman of the Waitaki Multicultural Council, who is celebrating a major anniversary of her family arriving in New Zealand from Uruguay.

Maria: Yes, the 15th of November, 2023, marked my first 20 years in New Zealand, all spent in Oamaru.


Please tell us a bit about your life in Uruguay before coming here.

Before coming to New Zealand we lived in Montevideo, the capital, and I was working as a trained clinical psychologist.

My husband and I also ran a maths academy.

However, in 2000, a huge economic crisis hit South America, affecting Uruguay.

We realised we needed a better future for our children, so decided to explore opportunities abroad.

After considering various options, a friend recommended New Zealand, a place we knew little about but found intriguing.


How did you end up in Oamaru?

I came with my three children — Matias, Leticia and Steven.

They were 16, 12 and 3 years old, and my husband Nicolas.

He found his first job as a maths teacher in Oamaru, and we also liked the idea of living in a smaller town.

It was a significant change from the bustling city life we were used to.


What was it like when you first arrived here?

It was a huge change, especially not speaking English at the time.

Coming from a city like Montevideo to a small town like Oamaru was quite a culture shock.

I remember arriving during Victorian Heritage Week, which was a delightful surprise. For me, Oamaru from day one was a beautiful town, but very different.

Starting with the weather — in November, Uruguay can be quite warm or hot already.

I always remember when one of Nicolas’s teacher workmates came to us with a big bag of coal to light our fire.

And I thought, why in November?

But I was really grateful the following day when not only we were using the coal, but he actually showed us how to light the fire because of course we lived on the seventh floor, so we didn’t know anything about how to light the fire or keep a garden or many other things that we learned in 20 years.


How did you cope with the language barrier?

It was tough, especially since English wasn’t compulsory in schools back then.

My husband and children picked up English more easily, but I struggled.

I was fortunate to receive help from a volunteer at the Citizens Advice Bureau, who guided me to a correspondence school programme.

Learning English through cassette tapes was a slow process, but I persevered.


How did you eventually integrate into the community?

It took time. My first job was working in the St Kevin’s College kitchen and serving the students breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Some of the students were really good with me, teaching me pronunciation.

That was a lovely way of learning.

Joining Waitaki Multicultural was a turning point.

Through potluck dinners and activities, I made friends and felt less isolated.

Eventually, I became involved in organising migrant meetings and later chaired the multicultural council.


What’s the role of the Waitaki Multicultural Council today?

We strive to welcome newcomers and provide support and friendship.

Over the years, we’ve expanded our services to assist migrants with various needs, from language classes to job assistance.

Our vision is for Oamaru to be known as a welcoming and inclusive community for all.


What are your hopes for the future of Waitaki Multicultural?

I hope to see even greater awareness and participation from both migrants and locals.

Collaboration with other community organisations and local government can help us achieve this goal of fostering a truly inclusive community.