A Home for All: A story of refugees in Aotearoa New Zealand

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 12 minutes 

With our world’s rising levels of war, famine, and poverty, come a larger number of individuals and families flocking for a safer home. Refugees are an unavoidable aspect of humanitarianism, one that every country on the planet has differing opinions on. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we have an extensive history of accepting refugees into the country. What are the lives of those refugees like, and how have they adapted to our culture?

Refugee intake began in New Zealand in the 1870s, when Danes fled in large numbers fearing the German occupation of Denmark. Shortly after followed Jewish Germans and French Protestants, both in fear of religious persecution. However, the first intake that marked New Zealand as a true haven was around 1100 refugees fleeing Nazism in the 1930s. They faced incredibly strict guidelines that meant thousands more were denied entry, but this nevertheless demonstrated that the country was prepared to take on the massive challenge of integrating so many individuals into our society. Following this, we saw the welcoming of an estimated 800 Polish refugees, almost entirely comprised of children,

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 12 minutes 

With our world’s rising levels of war, famine, and poverty, come a larger number of individuals and families flocking for a safer home. Refugees are an unavoidable aspect of humanitarianism, one that every country on the planet has differing opinions on. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we have an extensive history of accepting refugees into the country. What are the lives of those refugees like, and how have they adapted to our culture?

Refugee intake began in New Zealand in the 1870s, when Danes fled in large numbers fearing the German occupation of Denmark. Shortly after followed Jewish Germans and French Protestants, both in fear of religious persecution. However, the first intake that marked New Zealand as a true haven was around 1100 refugees fleeing Nazism in the 1930s. They faced incredibly strict guidelines that meant thousands more were denied entry, but this nevertheless demonstrated that the country was prepared to take on the massive challenge of integrating so many individuals into our society. Following this, we saw the welcoming of an estimated 800 Polish refugees, almost entirely comprised of children, accepted for permanent residency.

Moving forwards into the 1950s to 1970s, some 7,000 displaced European refugees arrived, as well as the slow but eventual intake of Asian refugees from China and Uganda. 1959 showed the world that New Zealand was intent on remaining progressive with refugee intake when it became one of the first countries to accept physically and/or mentally disabled refugees. The remainder of the 20th century saw massive intakes from the Middle East and Africa, which now remain one of the world’s most notable sources of refugees. In New Zealand, just over the past ten years we’ve seen the arrival of nearly 7,500 refugees from over 25 different countries, with the majority coming from countries like Myanmar, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia.

Integrating into our society is far more difficult than the process of migrating here. The learning of a new and complex language and adapting to cultural and societal practices that likely challenge those of a country on the other side of the planet means refugees often struggle.

Ann Beaglehole describes in her book Refuge New Zealand: A Nation’s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers that the significant numbers of Somalian refugees in the country have an evidenced history of targeted discrimination and racism through local newspapers and media, the job seeking process, and more.

New Zealand Geographer featured a research article describing the experiences of older Bhutanese refugees settling in Aotearoa New Zealand, which reported that elders suffer far greater during the resettling process than youth.

An article featured in the global academic publishing Journal of Refugee Studies showcased responses from interviewed refugees living in Aotearoa New Zealand, ultimately describing a privilege belonging to both Pakeha and Maori that leaves other ethnic groups struggling.

Finally, New Zealand Sociology featured a discussion about the lives and experiences of young people of refugee backgrounds, which evidenced several stories of discrimination and stereotyping.

One such young person who shared her experiences and story as a refugee, named Nela Zeinab Ahmadi, is an Afghan-Kiwi living in Auckland. Zee, as her friends call her, is 22 years old, currently studying a Bachelor of Health Science majoring in nursing at Auckland University of Technology. She is a passionate believer in the rights of healthcare workers in Aotearoa New Zealand and has been actively participating in strikes and protests in support of her career.

Zee’s family originally emigrated out of Afghanistan in the mid-to-late nineties due to the rampant poverty and war her family – and many others – were experiencing. “I don’t think many people in Afghanistan, unless they’re very rich, want to stay in Afghanistan,” said Zee, continuing to state that it’s a goal upheld by the majority of Afghans to one day make it to a Western country. Zee’s grandmother and mother made money for the family by picking saffron and crushing walnuts for up to 18 hours a day, with the remaining time spent prioritising the wellbeing of the rest of the family. They were not conditions congruent to a happy, fulfilled life.

After several years in Malaysia as a halfway point, the family were finally accepted as legally protected refugees into Aoteraroa New Zealand. Zee’s family were welcomed into the country via a refugee camp in Wellington. Aged 2, Zee spent weeks there with her family, where they were all educated about New Zealand’s culture, society, government, and most importantly, English. They were given daily language classes, providing Zee’s parents the opportunity to become fluent speakers.

Following their departure from the camp, the family were granted government-sponsored housing in Christchurch while the parents got to work finding employment (which they eventually did). Government support continued during this stressful time as well. Their sponsors – individuals who were assigned to look after the family and take responsibility for their day-to-day care – even helped Zee’s grandmother transition into the healthcare system, assisting with her medical needs, organising doctors’ appointments and so on. “I would say we were given a lot of support coming in,” said Zee.

When asked about her experiences growing up, Zee detailed times where she had been labelled “an asylum seeker”, a term she used to despise. “They would just look at me like I was a burden on the system, and even as a child you can tell when someone feels like that – there’s an instant shift in behaviour.”

In contrast, she fondly recalled a moment that occurred after being publicly harassed for wearing a hijab. “These two boys ran up to me [afterwards] and asked how long I’d lived here. I told them that I’d been here all my life, and they told me not to listen to him, because I am a Kiwi, and nothing will ever change that.” Zee started to feel a sense of belonging to the country after this experience, beginning to label herself as an Afghan-Kiwi and speak more openly about being a refugee.

As a young adult, Zee is incredibly proud and thankful to possess such a rich heritage. On the topic of refugee communities in Christchurch, Zee shared that, “… having grown up in that environment and knowing our traditional practices, it feels really good.” She admitted that she used to hold some disdain towards her cultural roots, even stating she was embarrassed to be recognised in public by members of the Afghan community. Now having left Christchurch, though, she’s come to appreciate “… that it was such a beautiful thing to be a part of; I can’t understand why I would want to push that away.”

While it may not be a likely option in the coming months, considering the prevalence of COVID-19 and the recent Taliban occupation of Afghanistan, Zee still insists that she wishes to visit her mother country one day. She feels as if she has two homes, one of which she has never visited. “I’m just trying to bridge that gap,” said Zee. “I’ve heard a lot about how, for people who weren’t born in Afghanistan or haven’t been for a while, [visiting Afghanistan] really changes their perspective on things, in terms of the journey they have taken to be in a country like Aotearoa New Zealand.” She even speaks to some form of desensitisation to the issues of Afghanistan, “… because there’s almost a disconnect. I find it quite hard to relate sometimes when tragic things happen.” She believes that seeing the country for herself will help make that connection.

Zee’s provides a beautiful message to other Afghan refugees around the country, one of prosperity and courage in the face of trying times. “Don’t feel guilty for being here; it’s not your fault what’s happening, and hopefully one day those people will get to enjoy a life like this as well. I think the best that we can do where we are is to not forget everyone back home and to make the most of every chance we’ve got in this country.”

What Zee shared with BiograView is not all that uncommon for refugees in our country: a myriad of experiences, both positive and negative, that will likely help shape her life for years to come. Despite our proven and reputable history as a safe haven for refugees from all over the world, we are yet to fully accommodate all their needs. While we provide homes, financial support, education – helping them integrate physically to the day-to-day life of Kiwi culture – we lack the aptitude and understanding to assist them emotionally.

Refugees often carry with them inherent grief and fear that can affect their resettlement process for years. Combining this with a society that is still finding its own feet in biculturalism and yet to reach true multiculturalism, it’s easy to see how complex and difficult refugee life may be. More work is needed to make this a true home if we are to continue claiming that we can become one for thousands. Young people like Zee might just hold the key to helping our culture adjust, and in the process, create a more inclusive, open society for all.

 

Sources: 1. Refugees – 1870s – 1940s: Refugee groups; 2. Refugees – 1950s – 1970s: Refugee groups, teara.govt.nz 3. Refugee and protection – statistics pack, Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment 4. Refuge New Zealand: A Nation’s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Otago University Press 5. ‘Ageing out of place’: Experiences of resettlement and belonging among older Bhutanese refugees in New Zealand, New Zealand Geographer 6. ‘I am a New Zealand citizen now—This is my home’: Refugee citizenship and belonging in a post-colonizing country, Journal of Refugee Studies 7. Resettlement journeys: A pathway to success? An analysis of the experiences of young people from refugee backgrounds in Aotearoa New Zealand’s education system, New Zealand Sociology

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in