Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances

June 2015 Feature The United Nations’ World Refugee Day, observed on June 20 each year, honours the spirit and courage of millions of refugees worldwide and recognises their contributions to…

June 2015


The United Nations’ World Refugee Day, observed on June 20 each year, honours the spirit and courage of millions of refugees worldwide and recognises their contributions to new communities. Wel-Com has invited a number people who came to New Zealand as refugees, and are now settled in Wellington and Palmerston North, to share their stories.

Some common responses to their new lives here included feelings of safety, freedom, the kindness and friendliness of New Zealanders, educational opportunities and a willingness of people to help. The Kiwi partiality for bare feet astonished many, as did public displays of affection, a lack of respect for elders, and our cold winters!

Articles and photos: Annette Scullion, Wellington; Kathleen Field, Palmerston North.

Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances Archdiocese of WellingtonThe Hussaini family, from Afghanistan, now live in Karori: L–R, Sherin Jan (mother), Jamileh,  Shafiheh, Qudratollah and Adeleh. ‘The first thing we noticed coming here in 2012 was the language difference. As women, we also noticed the differences in clothes, because we are expected to be completely covered. People are so friendly – at school, on the street, on buses. We feel free and safe and can relax without always having to think about security and safety. Living in Afghanistan and then in a camp in Pakistan for two years, we always had to stay inside and there were no opportunities for education. Here, one of the first things presented to us was educational choices. Yes, we can go to school! We are so happy to be here and have these opportunities.’


Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances Archdiocese of WellingtonDaniel Gamboa, Columbia: I came to New Zealand on 21 June 2012. At first, I found the language very different. At Auckland airport I noticed a sign that said ‘Haere mai’, which was new to me. People drive on the other side of the road, which I was completely unprepared for. Then I noticed people in bare feet and thought that was very strange!
My mother and I settled in Lower Hutt. We were invited to a dinner of ‘finger food’. I was horrified, until our hosts explained what it meant. I couldn’t understand why we were invited to ‘bring a plate’, or what a ‘pot luck’ dinner was. There was a lot of information to take in as well as cultural differences.
During my first year I went to school, and it was very different. Columbian schools are very strict, you never talk in class or talk back to the teacher and classes there are much bigger. Here on the buses no-one talks and people are very reserved. My culture is expressive so this is unusual for me. It’s been something of a struggle to make kiwi friends here. Most of my friends are from other countries.
I am good at languages. I work part-time as a bi-lingual teacher with new Columbians and I love to give back what I have received. I started studying at university last year in business management and theatre. I love theatre and my goal is to use drama with new refugees to help them tell their stories.
I enjoy being here, there are so many opportunities. I miss my country and culture and all its bright colours. I want to go back there with the skills I have learnt here to help – but not to stay.
Here is my home. I enjoy telling my story – it reminds me of what I went through. This empowers me to keep going.


Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances Archdiocese of WellingtonAntoinette Umugwaneza (second left) and her husband Thomas Kigufi came from Rwanda to New Zealand in 1996 with their son Alain and their four daughters Martine, Marie, Pamela and Ange. They found a warm welcome at St Mary’s Parish, Palmerston North, from day one. Antoinette works for the Red Cross supporting other refugees. She says it would be helpful if we taught young children more about other cultures here. They would love to share much about Rwandan culture – music, dance, food. A major difference here is the celebration of weddings. In New Zealand only limited guests are invited. ‘In Rwanda, you don’t wait for an invitation – if you’ve heard about it, and you know the family, then you attend!’


Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances Archdiocese of WellingtonEritrean Mulugeta Sibhat came to New Zealand in 2003 through the UNHR programme. Last year, with the help of the Refugee Family Reunification Trust, Mulugeta was reunited with his mother and sisters who had been living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. They now live in Lower Hutt. ‘I am extremely happy to have my family here. When you have a dream and wake up things are not real. But for me this is real, my dream has come true. The landscape is beautiful and green with no dust. It’s amazing, the cleanness here is precious.
‘When I first got here, the number one thing I was looking for was  peace, not to have to fear anything and to be able to go to sleep, wake up and go to work. The second thing was freedom – to freely worship and live a normal life. Here you see women on the road, cycling, driving and out walking. That is very impressive. There is also freedom of speech. People can have opinions and openly disagree. As Africans we come here hungry for education and work. You have opportunities here.
‘This country is great for me. I have all I need, and I thank God. For example, if I want to study, I can, it’s up to me. If I want food, I can have it. It took me a while to understand the New Zealand and culture and language. I am still shocked when I see people not respecting their elders, such as not standing and offering them a seat on the bus. If you look after your elders the next generation will do so too. You reap what you sew!’


Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances Archdiocese of WellingtonOne of the biggest differences Veronica Joseph and her mother Doreen, who arrived from Burma in 2014, notice about New Zealand is the way we tend to live individual, separate lives. In their home country, parents, children and married children live together and parents are especially respected and cared for. Being isolated from the rest of their family is hard. At the refugee camp in Thailand their family applied for resettlement. When Veronica’s two sisters and brother were accepted into America, she stayed with her mother who had not been accepted. One of
their biggest wishes was to be housed near a Catholic Church and to find in their new parish the kind of community they had experienced at home. They would love to have even more visits from their parish priest and closer relationships with fellow parishioners. Veronica’s face lights up when she describes the wonderful access to education and health services and the safe environment they have experienced in Palmerston North. Ideally, though, they would like warmer weather!


Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances Archdiocese of WellingtonFr Aprem Pithyou, his wife Juliet and their four children came from Northern Iraq to New Zealand in 1989. ‘People here were very good to us. Our sponsors Patrick and Joyce, parishioners of St Patrick’s parish in Wainuiomata, provided us with a family house and Fr David Orange was also very good to us. Living in Iraq we were not free, but here we are. People are very friendly. They help one another and enjoy freedom. But sometimes too much freedom is not a good thing – for example, when younger people don’t show respect to their elders.’In 1992, Fr Aprem was ordained an Assyrian priest of the Ancient Church of the East. The family then moved to Newtown, home to most of the Assyrian community.
Fr Aprem is parish priest of the Ancient Church of the East,  St George Parish, Strathmore, which has about 450 members.


Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances Archdiocese of WellingtonLuwi Buchike came to New Zealand from Rwanda in 1998 with his two sons. He lives with his mother Costasiya Ndachombonya in Lyall Bay; she arrived in 2002 under the family reunification programme. ‘It is quite different here as everyone does their own thing, whereas African society is communal. My mother has been here for 12 years but she and the neighbours don’t visit so it can be lonely.’ When Luwi arrived, there were few Africans living here so he found it hard to get a job. ‘Now there are more Africans here and a better understanding between the cultures. The most important thing coming into a new country is to get a job. Unless new migrants are given opportunities employers can’t know what they can offer. Once people see how competent migrants can be, they can begin to go forward in their new country. When you see migrants, smile and say hello. We appreciate being invited to be part of the community.’