Navigating identity

By Hayley White

Reading time: 10 minutes

Vira Paky has lived in New Zealand since 2003 and arrived with her parents as asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She tells me about how her parents briefly lived in Africa, post-apartheid, where there was a lot of social and political tension. Apartheid (Afrikaans, meaning apartness) was a time of segregation when the white-led National Party existed in South Africa and Southwest Africa from 1948 until 1994. Despite ending only 27 years ago, apartheid is still felt throughout Africa today.

“It was a giant leap of faith, for my mother especially, to really commit to the decision to migrate. She was coming out of a place of a lot of conflict,” Vira tells me. “Getting out of a place of political corruption and ethnic cleansing of specific communities in Congo was kind of the main push that led to our migration.”

There are 26 million refugees in the world, half of whom are refugee children. In 2019, more than two-third of the world’s refugees came from Syria, Venezuela, Myanmar,

By Hayley White

Reading time: 10 minutes

Vira Paky has lived in New Zealand since 2003 and arrived with her parents as asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She tells me about how her parents briefly lived in Africa, post-apartheid, where there was a lot of social and political tension. Apartheid (Afrikaans, meaning apartness) was a time of segregation when the white-led National Party existed in South Africa and Southwest Africa from 1948 until 1994. Despite ending only 27 years ago, apartheid is still felt throughout Africa today.

“It was a giant leap of faith, for my mother especially, to really commit to the decision to migrate. She was coming out of a place of a lot of conflict,” Vira tells me. “Getting out of a place of political corruption and ethnic cleansing of specific communities in Congo was kind of the main push that led to our migration.”

There are 26 million refugees in the world, half of whom are refugee children. In 2019, more than two-third of the world’s refugees came from Syria, Venezuela, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. In the same year, only 0.5 percent of refugees were resettled in developing countries (Amnesty International, 2021).

New Zealand has one of the lowest refugee quotas in the world. With around 1,500 per year from July 2020, New Zealand is ranked 116th in the world for refugee acceptance. Australia resettles five times as many refugees and asylum seekers on a per capita basis. Lebanon currently has the most refugees, with 135 refugees per 1,000 people. In 2019, Turkey housed 3.6 million refugees (Amnesty International, 2021).

In 2019, Vira was elected President of the New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council (NZNRYC). Established in 2013, it is a non-government organisation that exists to advocate for, engage, and support young refugees in New Zealand.

“We stand as one of the only youth organisations that are run by former refugees for refugee youth. I think that makes us incredibly important, as we have all lived that same experience that we’re trying to improve for the young people coming into New Zealand,” she says. The NZNRYC helps to assimilate refugee youth into New Zealand, because of how challenging it can be to immigrate to a completely new country.

Vira says the biggest difficulties refugee youth face are language barriers, entering a new workforce, and mental health. She says that of all languages, the English language is the most complex because there are so many implied meanings that people from other cultures may not grasp. “I know that very often my mother had this experience where people would invite her over and tell her to bring a plate and she would literally bring just an empty plate because there was no cultural context,” she says. “Obviously that’s a softer example but it reinforces the ways in which language holds extra meaning. If you don’t grow up with it, you don’t understand it.”

As for adult refugees arriving in New Zealand, she says that getting placed into menial labour is common, even if a refugee has an advanced qualification. “It is not uncommon for resettled adults to come with their degrees from great universities overseas and be relegated to janitorial positions or to back breaking labour work, which can be extremely difficult.”

With regards to mental health, Vira says that it’s interesting because it’s such a taboo subject in so many cultures that it’s never really spoken about. “In a lot of ethnic communities you will find that there is no word for mental health that does not also translate to crazy,” she tells me.

“It’s a very real challenge for a lot of resettled young people, because you’re coming to a place where you can barely relate to anybody; your parents are holding onto the beliefs of their home country, and you’re relating to them, but you’re also trying to assimilate this new world,” Vira says. “You’re constantly at a crossroads trying to develop your cultural identity because you don’t want to lose what your parents have given you. But it’s coming at the expense of trying to integrate into this new society, trying to navigate this world, and build a life for yourself that feels authentic.”

Of course, refusing to talk about mental health means you end up repressing emotions, which Vira says is also pretty common in refugee youth. And this kind of emotional and mental turmoil goes hand-in-hand with social isolation, which the NZNRYC strives to prevent in refugee youth. Even the average, well-adjusted person can understand the struggle of not having a very good day – something which makes it nearly impossible to talk to new people and really relate. “When I was going to a lot of specific holiday programs, meeting people who had lived similar experiences was the lifeline to really building connections and feeling comfortable in my own space,” she admits.

“Because of our similar experiences, we understood that it was hard for our parents to be open about particular topics. But we knew how to navigate the school system in an individual way whilst not having much support around us and having to build up our own connections.”

When I ask her what the hardest aspect of immigrating to a new country was, she said representation was something she found difficult. Because there was no one really like her, she struggled to see herself within her built communities. “For a lot of people, I was the first black person they had ever met, the first African, and I was having to meet all of these different expectations based on stereotypes I didn’t even really know existed.”

Coming from Africa, where most people were dark-skinned like her, those stereotypes changed the dynamic within herself and how she presented herself outwardly.

Things have changed for her, now. New Zealand gradually became more multi-cultural, migration continued to increase, and Vira became more comfortable, but it was still a difficult process.

Vira thinks much can be done to make New Zealand a more welcoming place for refugee youth. She believes that the education sector would be her first priority to improve on because as soon as refugee youth come to New Zealand, they jump straight into learning. She feels cultural competency training for all teachers should be implemented so they can learn how to be more accommodating and welcoming to new refugee students with difficult backgrounds. “I think there’s something about feeling included in the classroom that can really change your entire experience in education, and teachers are incredibly influential,” she tells me. Even for young Muslims who need to pray five times a day, or young people who are dealing with different cultural expectations when it comes to respecting authority, having those things understood and respected [is important],” she states, adding that “it also educates children in the classroom which would bring the sense of normalcy that I feel our country with its many different cultures, is trying to achieve.”

Vira just wants people to understand that being a refugee is not a first choice. The word refugee itself comes from the word refuge; the state of being safe or sheltered from danger or difficulty.

“I hear my mom say all the time, when she talks about her life, that she never imagined she would be thousands of kilometres away from our family or friends, the place she grew up in, or all of the other things that she had worked so hard in her life for. This was not her first choice,” she tells me.

“This was an action out of necessity, it was survival and I think that’s a really important thing to emphasise, because once you realise that, you can begin to have a sense of compassion, to understand.” And that is what it all comes down to, having compassion and empathy.

“It’s incredibly essential that you recognise that and share that level of compassion when you meet every single refugee, because you know that this isn’t how they planned their life,” says Vira.

 

Source: Global facts and figures about refugees, amnesty.org

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