Answering the tough questions on resettling refugees in New Zealand

by Rachel O’Connor / 18 December, 2017
The El Masri family share a meal with their Red Cross refugee support volunteers. The volunteers are a link to Kiwi life and help guide families through their first six months in New Zealand. Most volunteers become firm friends with the people they support. Photo / Red Cross

The El Masri family share a meal with their Red Cross refugee support volunteers. The volunteers are a link to Kiwi life and help guide families through their first six months in New Zealand. Most volunteers become firm friends with the people they support. Photo / New Zealand Red Cross

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On 25 December, 1,000 former refugees will be enjoying their first Kiwi Christmas. Half of those will be kids, oblivious to the debates about refugee resettlement that rages around them. Rachel O'Connor from the New Zealand Red Cross responds to that debate.

Christmas is a time for families to gather and share the love through presents, fill our bellies with food and, inevitably, offend each other with our differing opinions. All I want for Christmas is some peace and quiet over my roast turkey. However, with the confirmation to increase the refugee quota, I’m steeling myself for another year of passionate conversations.

I’ve spent the last 10 years involved with refugee resettlement and often get asked a lot of questions about my work and the people I encounter. It’s a polarising topic. Some people are fans of New Zealand accepting refugees, some have reservations about it and others are absolutely horrified that refugees come here. I get quizzed by my family and friends (they’re mostly fans of resettlement), by people sitting next to me on aeroplanes (50-50), and even by the guy who was fixing my washing machine (not a fan – but charges a fair rate).

I’ve learned that people genuinely care about this issue and even the non-fans are just good people with very real questions who simply lack real information about refugee resettlement in New Zealand. Often people don’t have the right information simply because there are so few refugees who arrive here. With families being resettled in only six locations, a lot of Kiwis have never met someone from a refugee background before.

Like the 12 days of Christmas, I can count on the four questions I’ll be asked this festive season.

Where do we house them?

On the first day of Christmas I always field a question about housing, “how can we house others when we can’t house our own?” When someone arrives as a refugee they are supported to find a house to live in and part of our job is to make those buildings a home.

Being safe, warm and able to put your roots down is an essential aspect of rebuilding your life. The average time a person spends in a refugee camp is 17 years so, I can tell you, when people arrive they are incredibly grateful to have somewhere to live. By providing refugees with New Zealand residency, the government is essentially saying, “You are now sons and daughters of New Zealand.” In other words, they are our own and have the same rights and responsibilities we all have in New Zealand, including the right to a house.

What about work?

On the second day of Christmas, I usually get asked about jobs. I’ve had many Christmas chats with a passionate family friend who is adamant that refugees are stealing our jobs. I’m always confused when the same person argues we shouldn’t accept refugees because they can’t find jobs and are stuck on the benefit. One or the other, mate!

The truth is, former refugees want to work and the labour market is constantly changing, it isn’t a game of musical chairs; it’s constantly growing and expanding. Employment is a way for former refugees to rebuild their lives here in New Zealand, provide for their families, use their skills and contribute to their community.

I remember one former refugee telling me he didn’t feel like a Kiwi until he’d found his first job in New Zealand.

Nubia Bedoya is a former refugee from Colombia who has found employment with a social enterprise called Needs More Cushions. Employment is an important part of the resettlement process and refugees bring a range of skills with them to New Zealand. Photo / Red Cross

Many people who arrive through the refugee quota have skills and experience that we need in our job market and are beneficial to our country. The largest group to arrive this year were from Syria, a country that, before the war, had a higher tertiary education rate than New Zealand. In the past year, we’ve welcomed doctors, dentists, shoemakers, engineers, farmers, business owners and mums and dads (don’t tell me that’s not a job!).

Our Pathways to Employment programme helps former refugees find jobs in New Zealand – at the rate of about one a day – and we constantly hear from Kiwi employers that former refugees are driven, committed and good employees.

How much health care will they need?

On the third day of Christmas, people ask me in a concerned tone about how former refugees are a burden on our health system because they’ve suffered so much trauma.

Former refugees are ordinary people who have faced extraordinary circumstances. I’ve heard horrific stories about the evil things one person can do to another. This is what they have survived. I am continuously amazed by the resiliency, hope, courage and determination from the people I meet. There are parents who have made impossible decisions to keep their kids safe, children who have had to be brave and act like adults, and families who have overcome unimaginable challenges to ensure they remain together.

There is no doubt some people carry scars, both physical and psychological. But overcoming and surviving also generates physical and psychological strength and they bring this with them to New Zealand. I know people who have been brave, courageous, determined and resourceful. They have fought for democracy, for freedom and to protect others. These are exactly the type of people we want in New Zealand.

Will they fit in?

On the fourth day of Christmas, I usually get asked about why refugees don’t integrate. Sometimes, after a couple of eggnogs, it’s phrased slightly differently: “If they want to come here, they should act like we do. They shouldn’t try and change us!”

As Kiwis, this might be hard to hear, but refugees didn’t choose to come here. They have their own mountains, rivers and land that are important to them, that hold the stories and footprints of their ancestors. They only left because they had to – if they did not, they may have died. The sad fact is that most refugees don’t even get a chance to be resettled – 99.6% of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide don’t get this opportunity. For the small percentage who do, there is no reading Trip Advisor reviews before deciding. They have to say yes to the country that offers them a place or they lose the chance to be part of the lucky 0.4%.

I see evidence of integration every day. I was embarrassed this week when I found myself having to mumble a couple of the lines of the national anthem in te reo while a group of young former refugees sung it word for word, with perfect te reo Māori pronunciation.

Despite not choosing to leave their own country, the former refugees we work with are eager to make the most of the opportunity they are given. This is their new home and former refugees want to become Kiwis and enjoy all this great country can offer.

Muna Al Nasar is a former refugee from Syria who has found employment with a social enterprise called Needs More Cushions. Photo / New Zealand Red Cross

At the Christmas table one year I slammed my cutlery down in frustration after a particularly challenging comment from another guest. It caused my sister to comment that she was worried someone other than the turkey was about to become stuffed.

Despite the challenging nature of some of these conversations, I enjoy these discussions. People genuinely want to know more about refugees and resettlement but don’t have the privilege I do. They don’t get to be a colleague and friend of people who came to New Zealand as refugees. Even with the most difficult questions, I believe underpinning them is a genuine concern that resettling refugees here will change the New Zealand that we know and love. We’ve been welcoming refugees for more than 70 years and if New Zealand has changed, it’s only got better because of former refugee communities.

On 25 December, 1,000 former refugees will be enjoying their first Kiwi Christmas. Half of those 1,000 people will be kids, oblivious to the debates about refugee resettlement that rages around them.  But thanks to resettlement, New Zealand has more colour, more diversity and more flavours – and thank God other cultures have helped us extend our food range from meat and three vege. It has also given us the opportunity, as a country, to show compassion, to be caring, and to acknowledge that we are bloody lucky to live where we do and that this is not the case for everyone else across the globe.

Welcoming refugees to New Zealand has changed our country for the better.

 

 *Rachel O'Connor is the National Migration Programmes Manager for the New Zealand Red Cross.


 How can I help?

You can find out more about the Red Cross refugee programmes here.

Here's where you can donate goods to help turn refugee houses into homes.

If you're interested in helping refugees settle in, find out more about the Red Cross volunteer programme.

 

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