Making a home away from home

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 12 minutes

Leaving home - it’s a milestone we all face at some point. But leaving your homeland to start a new life in another country presents a raft of complexities and challenges on another scale altogether - never mind trying to do so during a global pandemic.

Helping those new to New Zealand make a life and find a sense of belonging and home is both a business and a passion for well-travelled Kiwi Bridget Romanes.

She’s the founder and director of award-winning company Mobile Relocation, which she started up nearly six years ago after having spent a decent chunk of her adult life working and living overseas. The former diplomat - with postings to the New Zealand High Commission in Delhi, India, and Singapore to her name - describes herself as an “accidental entrepreneur”. She saw a need, a gap, in terms of a service designed to smooth the process of relocating, which can be daunting.

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 12 minutes

Leaving home – it’s a milestone we all face at some point. But leaving your homeland to start a new life in another country presents a raft of complexities and challenges on another scale altogether – never mind trying to do so during a global pandemic.

Helping those new to New Zealand make a life and find a sense of belonging and home is both a business and a passion for well-travelled Kiwi Bridget Romanes.

She’s the founder and director of award-winning company Mobile Relocation, which she started up nearly six years ago after having spent a decent chunk of her adult life working and living overseas. The former diplomat – with postings to the New Zealand High Commission in Delhi, India, and Singapore to her name – describes herself as an “accidental entrepreneur”. She saw a need, a gap, in terms of a service designed to smooth the process of relocating, which can be daunting.

2020 Kiwi TEMI winners

Auckland-based now, Bridget says she, and 17 other advisors dotted around Aotearoa, fulfil the role of “trusted independent advisor” for a range of new arrivals. They include new migrants coming here for the first time to returning Kiwis, many who may have spent a decade or more in other lands and perhaps lost touch with how things have changed back home. Advisors, based in the main centres; Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Hamilton, as well as Tauranga and New Plymouth, provide local knowledge, orientation and assistance getting established – everything from finding a house to rent or buy, checking out and enrolling children in schools, banking, social and health services and links to sports clubs or other interest groups.

Whether they are working with private clients immigrating independently (as well as those hired through an executive recruitment agency or corporate HR department) or returning Kiwis, Bridget says the process for helping people move, transition, and settle successfully is multi-faceted. It is as much about offering support for social and emotional wellbeing as dealing with the practicalities of organising visas, flights, shipping possessions and finding a house.

Naturally, streamlining the pragmatic aspects of moving across the world to a country where you may not speak the language or understand the culture does help to reduce stress. A checklist to get things started and a website with wide-ranging and helpful information, insights, tips and access to an online psychologist are evidence that Bridget has left no stone unturned in catering for the needs of new migrants or returnees (among the 50,000+ Kiwis returning to New Zealand since COVID-19 hit in March 2020). And though the number of new migrants coming in has dropped off dramatically since the first lockdown, ongoing job skill shortages, particularly in health care, construction, and the public sector mean there are still plenty of people continuing to move here. But for many, their efforts could be in vain for a while yet, due to the impact of necessary pandemic border restrictions on immigration policy and processes. Offshore work visa applications are now suspended except for a few categories where the government judges the economic benefit is significant and the skills are not available in New Zealand.

Mental health and wellbeing crucial to migrants’ success

While a new job and career progression may be the key focus and reason for someone moving here, there is more to life than work, and the motivation for most is the perceived opportunity for a better life. The service provided by Bridget’s company starts with a plan and a detailed profile – hobbies, adults’ and kids’ interests, and schooling. “If we know that one of the children does ballet, for example, that might be the first thing we organise – starting that ballet class can be just as important as getting enrolled in school.”

Investing time and energy in ensuring new arrivals have the tools to create a good life alongside work makes good business sense, Bridget asserts. The employee is likely to be more content and therefore more productive at work if life outside the office, lab or hospital is going well, and they are more likely to stay.

CC – Auck Feb 2019

Such attention to these kinds of details is all part of Bridget’s belief in the importance of attending to the personal and emotional aspects of relocation. Dinner clubs and ‘cafe crawls’ are hosted regularly to bring new migrants together. She understands from her own experience how beneficial it is for new migrants to connect with others going through similar experiences at the outset of their new lives.

Ultimately, the aim is for clients and their families to widen their circle and befriend Kiwis through work, community events and connections, clubs, sport, school, and neighbours. “Once you’ve got most of the practical details sorted, the longer tail of settling is getting to the point of feeling part of the community – this can take longer,” says Bridget.

Friendly Kiwis laying down the welcome mat?

Kiwis are famous for their friendliness to strangers. “Be kind”, after all, has become a nationwide mantra since it was first uttered by the prime minister amid last year’s lockdown. But how easy is it for migrants to make strong friendships, especially if they come from very different (aka non-Anglo-Saxon) cultures and nations less familiar to New Zealanders?

Bridget says that while Kiwis are genuinely open, friendly, and well-intentioned, they tend to favour their well-established networks with friends and family. And they are busy. This means it can sometimes be tricky for new migrants to form deeper friendships with locals who operate in their own close-knit groups. This experience is echoed by an American family sharing insights on Mobile Relocation’s website on how surprised they were at the difficulty they had in creating a new social network despite the lack of a language barrier.

The fact that so many Kiwis have travelled extensively or lived overseas is a saving grace, however. Bridget sees potential for greater empathy and interest to be shown to that new neighbour from Sri Lanka, South Africa, or Scotland simply by Kiwis tapping into their own experiences of different cultures and remembering what it was like learning and adapting to other ways of living. She suggests we could take a more curious approach when conversing with new migrants to find out about the lives they led before arriving here, as a way of acknowledging them more fully.

Likewise, returning Kiwis can find themselves both glad to be back amongst friends and whanau, and yet surprised to feel disconnected and out of the loop for a variety of reasons. It is easy to see how this can happen, as Bridget explains. The person is likely to have left when they were younger, single and with few responsibilities. They return 10 or 15 years later, for example, often with a partner/spouse who may not be a Kiwi, with children, a more senior level of professional experience and having lived a different life. They may not realise how much things have altered back home in their absence – from social behaviours and attitudes to the cost of things and other systemic changes. It can take a while to get to grips with differences in what was once a familiar setting, just as it can for family and friends to understand the ways in which their returning loved one has been changed by their experiences of living away.

Bridget has been in that situation herself and understands the territory. She left New Zealand a single career woman and returned with a husband and two children (her third was born here), so she’s made sure that Mobile Relocation’s resources and expertise are designed to cater for and find solutions to these common issues.

Vital intel – Kiwi Christmas to the meaning of ‘yeah, nah’

Mobile Relocation has an abundance of information, resources, links, and a checklist freely accessible to anyone planning to make a move or having made the move. It covers everything from tips on coping in a New Zealand lockdown (for example, by making a ritual of catching up with daily government announcements or nightly news with your favourite cocktail or beverage; sending a gift to a loved one back home; and eating NZ-made produce), as well as information on our MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine).

There is advice on moving pets and kids, renting, schools, pensions, and the novelties of a Kiwi Christmas in summer, and in one post, Bridget shares tips on Kiwi culture and jargon, from the meaning of “yeah, nah” and “the Abs” to “bring a plate” and our penchant for bare feet. There’s also, poignantly, a page titled “This is Not Who We Are”, capturing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s words in the immediate aftermath of the horrendous mosque shootings in Christchurch on 15 March 2019.

As our daily news feeds disclose the latest case numbers on New Zealand’s recent outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19, Bridget is struck by how much harder it is for her overseas-based clients, many who are cooped up in apartments, trying to get here right in the middle of lockdown. She sees and hears of their plights via Zoom chats. “Nowhere else in the world has had the level of freedom and peace of mind that we have had, with 170+ days of no restrictions,” she notes. “People feel so lucky to be coming here.”

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