Wellington, New Zealand

Bridging More than the Digital Divide

Computers in Homes

May 18, 2011

Using social technology to reach and teach refugee and low income families.

In the age of Facebook, Youtube and Skype, living without access to the Internet, let alone basic word processing software, can mean barriers to services and exclusion from an important aspect of mainstream culture.

For refugee families like the Phillipos, from Burma, who arrived in New Zealand with few possessions and limited English language skills, the digital divide is even greater.

To bridge this gap, the New Zealand not-for-profit, Computers in Homes (CIH) took an existing program that provides low income families with computers and training and modified it to cater specifically to refugee families and their unique needs.  Computers in Homes recognized an opportunity to make  Internet access and basic computer technology a passport to improved integration outcomes for immigrant children and their parents.

“It is critical that children with refugee backgrounds engage in the New Zealand education system,” says Di Daniels, National Coordinator, Computers in Homes, “and that their parents learn how to support them in their learning.”

For the Phillipo family, who lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for more than 15 years, the program is life-changing.

“In Burma I couldn’t even afford to buy an apple… having a computer in my house is like gold,” says Christopher Phillipo. “We are very lucky to be in New Zealand.”

Computers at Home

The Refugee Computers in Homes program is offered to 90 refugee families each year. They receive 30 hours of basic computer training, including how to use email, create word processing documents and even surf the Web. At the end of the training, families receive a refurbished computer to take home with free Internet access for one year (followed by a subsidized rate).

Most importantly, they also receive free transport, childcare, interpreters and a family liaison home visitor to help the success of the 30 hours of basic computer training.

“This removes barriers for attending training,” says Das. “We don’t want anyone to not be able to attend because they have no car or childcare. “

In the case of the Phillipo family, both husband and wife, Christopher and Rosawanni, took part in a Refugee CIH class aimed at the Burmese community that has settled in the city of Porirua, 25 km north of Wellington. In addition to the instructor, a translator was available to ensure the lessons were understood by all. By the end of the course, participants had even created their own resumes online.

The Phillipo family is thrilled with their computer. The children use the Internet for homework and, of course, play games while the entire family uses it to listen to Burmese news on BBC radio. Having email and live chat means they can keep in touch with friends and family abroad easily and economically. Christopher Philipo has begun to further his education, taking another computer class at the local Polytechnic.

“Because of all the opportunities in Porirua my family has a very bright future, once I have mastered English, I would like to get a job in the computer industry – maybe I could be a computer teacher.”

You’ve Got Mail

Over 500 refugee families from a multitude of countries, including Columbia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Cambodia, Somalia, Burundi and Afghanistan have gone through the Refugee CIH program and received computers.  The number of communities offering the program has also grown thanks to a  ‘Starter Kit’ developed by Computers in Homes.

Schools have reported increased communication between refugee parents and teachers. Parents are able to not only connect with their children’s education, but are able to access the wider community itself.

“For many in the course, this was the first time they had ever been in contact with a computer in their lives. In conjunction with an English course, these families are now able to search the Internet, communicate with distant relatives, and use basic word processing software,” says Daniels.

“Creating a computer culture and digital learning experience  in homes helps children with e-literacy,” Das continues. “We take the parents with ‘techno-fear’ who have never touched the computer before from being non-users to confident users.”


The Refugee Computers in Homes is part of a larger program born out of a pilot project led by the 2020 Communications Trust (initially started by the Wellington City Council to improve digital literacy), which recognized that children from schools in low income neighbourhoods had the least access to computers and internet at home.

In 2000, they began Computers in Homes to help families in greatest need to use the internet, email, and basic computer skills in their everyday lives, and to enhance their performance at school and at work.  Today, the flagship program has provided training and computers to over 5,000 New Zealand  families across the country.

The success of the original CIH project resulted in funding from  the Ministry of Education, Refugee Education division, to establish and customize the Refugee CIH program. However, both programs have a similar goal: empowering communities for greater success and welcoming all New Zealanders into the digital mainstream.

Today Refugee CIH operates in communities large and small (such as Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Nelson) offering training to small groups at local migrant organizations, high schools and community education centres. Refugee CIH is also supported by Regional Migrant Services, local training providers, community volunteers like the Rotary Club as well as local ethnic community leaders who act as a liaison with refugee families.


In October 2014, Computers in Homes was recognized as one of three finalists for the prestigious IT Education Award in Auckland. No wonder — during the lat 14 years Computers in Homes has provided foundation digital literacy skills to over 12,000 families in communities across New Zealand, providing over 50,000 students with the opportunity to develop their IT skills and become an IT professional. Congratulations!

Making it Work for You:

  • Sometimes the biggest barriers to participation are practical. Supplement quality programming with services such as childcare and free transportation.
  • Partner with other agencies, volunteer and school groups to reach out to community and serve local needs.
  • Has your program identified a community liaison person to help you identify local interests and needs and to act as your advocate in the community?
  • Inclusive programming models bring family members together to support inter-generational learning.
  • Find local champions that can help you identify recycled computers in good working order! Reduce waste, save money and build a caring community!