Natalia Munoz: from refugee to local legend

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

Natalia Munoz could be any hardworking Kiwi mum. By day, she’s the sole caregiver for three of her four children. By night, she’s a PA for Auckland’s Starship Hospital. She loves cooking, coffee, and New Zealand ice cream. She’s also something of a local celebrity for her homemade Colombian food.

Twelve years ago, however, things were very different. Natalia arrived in New Zealand as a terrified and grief-stricken refugee. She was six months pregnant with her fourth child, and her other children - aged nine, three, and one - were at her side.

As the plane landed at Auckland Airport, Natalia suddenly realised she knew very little about what lay ahead: “The pilot was talking, and all I could think was: ‘Oh my god, I don’t know anybody. I can’t speak the language. What will I do when I get off this plane?’”

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

Natalia Munoz could be any hardworking Kiwi mum. By day, she’s the sole caregiver for three of her four children. By night, she’s a PA for Auckland’s Starship Hospital. She loves cooking, coffee, and New Zealand ice cream. She’s also something of a local celebrity for her homemade Colombian food.

Twelve years ago, however, things were very different. Natalia arrived in New Zealand as a terrified and grief-stricken refugee. She was six months pregnant with her fourth child, and her other children – aged nine, three, and one – were at her side.

As the plane landed at Auckland Airport, Natalia suddenly realised she knew very little about what lay ahead: “The pilot was talking, and all I could think was: ‘Oh my god, I don’t know anybody. I can’t speak the language. What will I do when I get off this plane?’”

To her relief, volunteers from Immigration New Zealand were waiting at the gate. Natalia and her children were taken to Mangere Refugee Centre, and the start of a whole new life.

Like hundreds of other Colombian refugees that have been resettled in New Zealand over the past 15 years, the Munoz family had become collateral damage of Colombia’s ongoing civil war. A few months earlier, they had been at home when armed soldiers burst through the door, shooting Natalia’s husband dead in front of her and her daughter. His ‘crime’ had been refusing to join a work party a few days before.

In the months that followed, Natalia decided the best thing for herself and her children would be to leave her beloved Colombia for good. She applied for refugee status through the United Nations and was eventually told she had been accepted by a country called New Zealand.

Initially, she was stumped. “I said, ‘Umm, what is New Zealand?’ They told me it was a country, and showed me on the map, and I saw how small it was. Then I thought, ‘I have never spoken English in my life. How will I cope? I’m too old to learn English now.’”

Although determined to give her children a better life, the first few years in New Zealand were not easy. After arriving at the refugee centre back in 2009, the family struggled with the food, the language barrier, and the loneliness. Spanish speakers were few and far between, which proved even more difficult when Natalia’s daughter suffered severe asthma attacks. When Natalia herself developed toxaemia, it was almost a relief to be in hospital and find that her midwife turned out to be from Chile. “I finally had someone to speak Spanish with! She exclaims and continues: “She helped me with everything – with finding the right food, and with finding a job. She was so amazing; I am still grateful to her.”

After her son was born in March 2010, Natalia and her children were resettled in Cannons Creek, Porirua. Immigration NZ provided them with a house to live in and a small team of volunteer helpers. “My house was so beautiful, and these volunteers were so wonderful. I still keep in touch with them,” she says.

 

There were many other things that weren’t going well, however, and Natalia found herself slipping into depression. At one point, she even begged to be allowed to ask (Prime Minister) John Key if they could go back to Colombia. “I was not happy. I still couldn’t speak the language. I was always getting lost – I had to be picked up and taken home all the time. I couldn’t make friends because I didn’t know anyone. I couldn’t even explain to the doctor what was wrong.”

She was provided counselling, which helped, but it was a Mexican-Canadian social worker who came to her rescue. “Oh, my god, she was amazing,” she says. “She was like a big sister to me. She helped me with so much – with looking after my children, with helping me learn English, everything.” With her children in daycare, Natalia had more time for herself. She began taking ESL classes at Whitireia Community Polytechnic and her English gradually improved.

After two years, Natalia was feeling less comfortable in Cannon’s Creek, and she summoned up the courage to ask if they could be resettled. “They said to me: ‘No, you can’t.’ And I said: ‘Yes I can.’” Leaving the home she had been provided would mean fending for herself, but Natalia knew she could make it on her own. She packed up her children and her washing machine, and the family moved to Hamilton.

It was in the leafy suburbs of Rototuna that she felt her life finally began again. Within weeks she had found a job with Hospice Waikato, and discovered her love of caregiving. “The people there were the most wonderful people I ever met in my life. They helped me so much – with my life, with my language. Even now I’m always thinking of them,” she says. “It was there I started to relax. I opened up more as a person, and I learned how to be more like a New Zealander.”

After four years in Hamilton, Natalia felt she was ready to attempt life in Auckland. It meant sharing a tiny apartment with a friend in Newmarket for two months while she searched for a home and a job, but it was worth it. They were offered an apartment in Parnell, and Natalia began working as a healthcare worker at Auckland Airport: the very place she’d arrived 11 years earlier.

Now, however, with fluent English and newfound confidence, Natalia quickly became one of the most-respected workers on site. She recalls being on duty just as the very last group of Colombian refugees arrived just before lockdown was announced. Like her former self, they spoke no English, and there was no one around who could speak Spanish – until Natalia stepped in to become their translator. “I was able to tell them: ‘Welcome to New Zealand!’ It was so amazing to be able to give back like that when I’d been in their position 11 years ago,” she says.

In July last year, Natalia was awarded two badges by the Royal New Zealand Air Force for her hard work and excellent service: an honour she regards as her proudest moment yet.

The other great thing about working in the airport was the celebrities. “It was so exciting. I met so many famous people!” she exclaims. She now has countless photographs of All Blacks – including her favourite Kieran Read – and also professional basketballer Steven Adams (“He is so tall!”).

December 2020 yielded another job opportunity, and she took on her current role as a PA for Auckland’s Starship Hospital. She loves caring for her young patients, and the work has brought her closer to her dream of becoming a registered nurse.

Although Natalia works an exhausting 12-hour night shift from 7pm to 7am, it means she can take her children to school and be there for them when they get home. “Everyone is so good there (at Starship). They make me feel like a person; they’re so happy with me. And when you love your job, you know you’re there to stay,” she says. “I love the kids and they love me!”

Now that life is more stable, Natalia has had more time to maintain some of their customs at home. Food is a big part of life, and she still cooks traditional Colombian food for her children every day. Arepas (cornmeal cakes) are a daily staple, along with soup, beans, plantains, and rice. She makes everything from scratch, and recently created a small side hustle selling traditional Colombian meals in her local area. Her chorizo and beans dishes are now highly coveted by her neighbours.

Kiwi cuisine does creep in occasionally: Natalia and her children are big fans of roast lamb, pavlova, and New Zealand-made ice cream.

Looking back, Natalia admits she is proud of what she has achieved. Now 37, she has single-handedly built a life for herself and her children and is forever grateful for what New Zealand has given her. “New Zealand holds the door for you. You can open it, or you can close it. My decision was to open it,” she says. “This is home now. We have a house, we have food, we can go to the doctor and get medication when we need it. We feel safe. There is no worry. Back home, we would have no place to live. People have no money; they cannot go to the hospital. Here is heaven.

“In the beginning, we had nothing. Now, our fridge is full, and I can see my kids are happy and they’re healthy. When I see my kids happy, I am happy,” she smiles. “We have gone through too much in our lives. I never want to see what happened to me, to happen to my kids.”

Long term, Natalia still dreams of studying to become a registered nurse. She is saving money and hopes one day to visit her family back in Colombia, whom she hasn’t seen since she left. She talks to her mum and sister regularly on Skype, but misses them badly. But for now, she is determined to keep making the most of life for her children’s sake.

And, whenever she recognises someone in a similar position, she gives them the same advice. “I tell them: ‘Just do it.’ I always told myself I can do it. It doesn’t matter what other people say, or if they laugh at your English. They never know what your life story is.”

There is one more dream she’d like to fulfil: meeting Jacinda Ardern. “Oh, she is my rock. She has the look of a woman doing her best for the country. She’s my inspiration!”

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