Refugee to Kiwi MP – the extraordinary life of Ibrahim Omer

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 15 minutes

Former refugee and now Labour list MP Ibrahim Omer occasionally has ‘pinch me’ moments when he is in the New Zealand Parliament during a debate or question. “It’s still like: ‘This can’t be real.’ I’ve been here [in New Zealand] 13 years, and 12 years after I arrived, I became an MP of this great country,” says Aotearoa’s first African member of Parliament.

It is and feels far, far away from Eritrea in the northeast of Africa, an extremely closed nation controlled by a brutally repressive military regime - the homeland he fled and can never return to.

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 15 minutes

Outside Parliament in Wellington, former refugee Ibrahim Omer is New Zealand’s first African MP

Former refugee and now Labour list MP Ibrahim Omer occasionally has ‘pinch me’ moments when he is in the New Zealand Parliament during a debate or question. “It’s still like: ‘This can’t be real.’ I’ve been here [in New Zealand] 13 years, and 12 years after I arrived, I became an MP of this great country,” says Aotearoa’s first African member of Parliament.

It is and feels far, far away from Eritrea in the northeast of Africa, an extremely closed nation controlled by a brutally repressive military regime – the homeland he fled and can never return to.

Ibrahim Omer on the campaign trail in Hamilton in 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

His achievement in becoming an elected politician garnered the attention of world media at the time; his extraordinary and harrowing tale – of surviving incarceration and death threats; his rise from low-paid cleaner at Victoria University of Wellington by night and being a student there by day, then becoming a union organiser and campaigner for the living wage before being shoulder-tapped for politics, is the stuff of legend and inspiration to many other former refugees here and around the world. “The feeling at the [election] time for me was overwhelming – excitement, euphoria and massive sense of responsibility at being elected,” Omer confesses.

Ibrahim Omer with members of New Zealand’s diverse ethnic population, at the launch of the new Ministry for Ethnic Communities

Reflecting on his first year as an MP, he says his main work has included tackling issues such as racism, low pay, and migrant worker exploitation. Particularly rewarding for him has been his work with the Ministry of Immigration in an intensive effort to process visas and permits impacted by the (Covid-19) pandemic. Some 165,000 migrants and refugees gained a pathway to residency, granted amid the upsets of the global epidemic in what amounted to an “immigration reset”, he explains. This included the new refugee quota under which 100 refugees from all over world come in every six weeks (as of July 2021).

Omer’s involvement with an inquiry, sparked by Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand’s report into the detention of asylum seekers in New Zealand prisons, is another important area of work for him.

He has also focussed on the challenges facing migrants and former refugees in getting jobs because of unconscious bias against foreign sounding names. There’s still resistance in the employment sector (private and public) against hiring former refugees and migrants, he notes. “Employers don’t like the unknown, and the migrant represents the unknown. If you’re hiring and five out of 30 are un-Kiwi names, you dismiss them.”

People have told him they have to change their names to ‘classic’ Kiwi (English sounding) names to even get a chance at having their CV looked at.

Ibrahim Omer getting together with Wellington’s African community at the end of 2021

And he is keen to address the visibility (or lack) of Aotearoa’s diverse, vibrant African communities. He would love for Kiwis to connect with their African fellow citizens more readily through the numerous cultural events on offer.

Eritrea to Aotearoa

Ibrahim won over hearts and minds with his maiden speech in November 2020 just after he was elected, recounting his now well-known personal story of surviving a hair-raising escape across the border to Sudan, followed by abduction and imprisonment before being granted asylum in New Zealand. It opened with:

Ibrahim Omer delivers his ground-breaking maiden speech to Parliament in November 2020 as New Zealand’s first African MP

“My name is Ibrahim Omer. I’m an Eritrean. I’m a son, brother, a friend. I’m a Muslim. I’m a former refugee. I’m a trade unionist and living wage activist. But most importantly, I stand here today in front of you bursting with pride as a Kiwi who loves Aotearoa New Zealand.

“My journey to this place has been a long one. The story of my journey is the story of every refugee displaced and forced from their home country and their loved ones. My vision is for my journey to give hope to the many other people with stories like mine.”

Describing Eritrea as “one of the biggest refugee-producing countries per capita in the world,” he says it was not always like this, and that his country had been “a tolerant society where people from different cultures and religious backgrounds embraced each other.”

But all that changed. Most of his childhood and teenage memories are war-ravaged. As a high school student, he was drafted into the national service supposedly for 18 months, but in reality, it was indefinitely.

“Once you are in, there is no way out of it. Eritrea was and still is a place where citizens disappear for no reason.Gross human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment are normal. I knew I had no choice but to leave before my time came. So, I left behind everything I loved: my country, my family, my friends, and my dreams, including the long list of things I wanted to be and do.”

He felt he had nothing to lose by taking the risky option to flee, on foot, to neighbouring Sudan. Ibrahim recounts his time in the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) camp where, he says “the only protection they have is they can give you food, shelter and that’s the best they can do. Anyone can come and kidnap you.”

His luck in getting a job with the United Nations (UN) interviewing newcomers to the camp also put him under suspicion of being a spy, a reflection of Sudan’s problems with a massive civil war with South Sudan. “They were suspicious of the UN and NGOs [Non-Governmental Organisations] – the regime [in Sudan] was using us as scapegoats to justify what was happening. A smear campaign against the UN gave the local security apparatus the green light to detain us if they wanted.”

The first time he was detained was for two days. Not long after that, he was in the capital city of Khartoum trying to open his emails at an internet café when Sudanese forces came and bundled him into a car, blindfolded. “They drove me around for about two hours for me to think I was being driven far away, and then in the middle of the night they put me into this dark cell where you don’t see anything or anyone. Once a day they opened the door in the morning and allowed me to go to the toilet. They gave me a piece of bread and cup of tea for breakfast. They gave me a lunch and that’s it.”

With his cell phone and wallet taken, he was cut off from the world. In Kobar prison, where he was moved to three months later, he met people who told him that if the UN knew his whereabouts, they would come to get him. He was advised to fake a serious sickness to alarm the prison authorities enough to seek outside medical help. If successful, he could hopefully get access to a phone and call his friend at the UN. It worked, and he was taken to the local hospital. “The doctor told guards to stay outside. I cried and asked if I could make just one call.”

He managed to get hold of his one friend in the Sudan UN office where he’d worked. In a few quick seconds he told him: “This is Ibrahim, I’m disappeared, and I’m being held at the Kobar prison. Please tell the organisation now.”

His employers appointed a senior lawyer, who alerted the government that the UN knew where Ibrahim was and that he was being held illegally. He was released over a month later. In total he’d spent five months and 20 days in one of the world’s most notorious prisons.

“It was depressing – you don’t know what’s going to happen. They could just come, put me in a van and hand me over to Eritrea. They can deny everything. They can deny they’ve seen me because no one saw me being kidnapped, no CCTVs, nothing at all – until I made that call to my friend.

“Or they can come and get rid of you – they can throw your body into the Nile River, and nobody will see it. They did that to a lot of people. It was a very hard time, very depressing, very uncertain, but I was lucky, and here I am today.”

An opportunity in New Zealand came up, offering to take urgent cases. It was another six months before he could leave Sudan. While waiting for a flight to New Zealand, he stayed in a friend’s rental and had to report to the police station daily.

First impressions

Green, so green – that was Omer’s first visual impression of the South Pacific country, his new home to be and a place he’d barely heard of. The cooler temperatures after 50 degrees Celsius in Sudan, and the volume of rain compared with the droughts of Africa – all dramatic contrasts to his former habitat. He was struck, too, by the laid back, chilled demeanour of Kiwis, and how fast people spoke! Relatively fluent in English when he arrived, he says he found the Kiwi accent rather bewildering at first.

His first years were dedicated to basic survival, working 80 to 90-hour weeks (first as a security guard then as a cleaner) to support himself and his family back home, and to save for university. “I thought maybe I could study and one day get a job where I could do 40 hours, Monday to Friday, and come home in the afternoon, read books or catch up with friends for coffee, exercise, play soccer – all those things that normal human beings do.

“I was a cleaner and now I’m not a cleaner anymore, but I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives who are still cleaning, but on a very minimum wage – feeling they are not valued, not respected. That was the only thing I wanted to do.”

He is mindful of the privilege and power he has as an MP to make changes for a better society, with low wages a specific concern, and references a recent book, Too Much Money: how wealth disparities are unbalancing Aotearoa New Zealand by Max Rashbrooke, which delves into how the wealthiest one per cent of adults – a club of some 40,000 people – has come to accumulate a net worth 68 times that of the average New Zealander.

It is a major priority for Ibrahim – finding ways to ensure lower-paid people are getting their fair share in life – especially as many refugees and migrants are in low paid work and vulnerable to being exploited because of language barriers and lack of information about their rights and entitlements. Work on fair pay legislation is currently in the pipeline and he encourages migrants to make submissions to a select committee. He is excited about developments planned for this year with regard to the living wage project.

Improving refugee resettlement processes and support is another area he wants to see progress in, such as longer-term support for very traumatised people from war zones.

Attending a recent dinner for newly arrived refugees from the Afghanistan crisis reminded Ibrahim of the empowering impact of his story, and the hope it offers to others. There is an instant emotional response and a connection through shared experiences, horrific though they are. The same reaction no doubt applies to New Zealand’s only other – in fact, the country’s first – former refugee/asylum seeker turned politician, Iranian-born Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman.

“One of the things from this job – because I travel extensively and meet a lot of people – is they tell me: ‘You give me hope that I can do anything I want to with my life, I can be a politician, a CEO.’ I feel I’ve achieved something just by inspiring people to chase their dreams. You can’t ask for better than that.”

 

 

Sources: 1. New Zealand’s treatment of asylum seekers under Ministerial spotlight, amnesty.org.nz 2. My name is Ibrahim Omer, newsroom.co.nz

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