TODAY |

'Best of humanity' brought out in wake of Christchurch terrorist attack with spike in refugee support volunteers

An outpouring of support from Kiwis has seen more people signing up to be volunteer refugee support workers since the Christchurch terrorist attack, with one volunteer saying she's made lifelong friends out of the tragedy and gained insight into a new culture.

Many New Zealanders were blindsided by the attacks on March 15, in which 51 people were killed at two mosques.

A Red Cross worker and new volunteer spoke to 1 NEWS about how people escaped potentially violent countries to settle in New Zealand - none expecting what unfolded on that day.

Christchurch woman Natasha Derry had been thinking about becoming a volunteer refugee support worker for some time, saying it was always in the back of her head but she never proceeded with it.

Read more: Auckland student's speech on race unity heard around the world - 'Feels like a jigsaw piece in the wrong puzzle'

But it was the Christchurch terrorist attacks that became "the trigger" for her to jump into the new role.

"I was really wanting to do something really practical," Ms Derry said. "I was seeing lots of people that were doing some really good stuff and I thought "well how can I do that?"

She put her name forward to be a refugee support worker soon after the attack and was called the same afternoon to organise her training.

"I thought, right, I'll just just bite the bullet and I'll ring up the Red Cross. I looked online and saw that you could become a refugee support worker and I just out my name down. I had no idea that there was an intake coming in."

Ms Derry says she's travelled a lot and always been welcomed to other countries. She said it was upsetting and embarrassing that people doing the same thing, but coming to her hometown, were harmed.

Read more: From asylum seeker to Fulbright scholar, young Kiwi shares success story for World Refugee Day

"They were just going about their daily businesses and they weren't safe.

"I never thought anything like this would happen in New Zealand and I think I was embarrassed because in all the travels I've done around the world I, in my own way, I've probably been a little bit arrogant being a Kiwi.

"I've always felt very safe generally, even when I've probably been in some situations which have been a little bit dicey, and I think the reason why I've felt quite safe is because I'm like "oh, I'm a Kiwi, everyone loves us", and generally they do.

"In turn it's like, "of course everyone wants to come and live in New Zealand because we're such a safe country, we don't have things happen like that", and so when the attacks did happen I felt, maybe actually deep down, a sense of shame."

On the day of the shootings, people didn't believe the media reports to be as bad as it sounded, Ms Derry said. She thought it was "just a one off" or domestic-gone-wrong.

"No one here thought "aw no, terrorist attack", I'm sure in other countries it would be like "oh my goodness something terrible's happened"."

Since signing up as a refugee support worker, she's helped people in all sorts of ways, from helping set up their television, to helping them with doctor's appointments, catching public transport, getting children enrolled at schools, helping them with their English and even staying with them if needed.

"Our role is to enable them to be independent," Ms Derry said. "Your ultimate goal is that you become void to them apart from hopefully (becoming) a long-term friend ... after a while you will not need to be that support worker because they are a fully functioning member of Christchurch society."

However, she says she's got a lot more out of the role than the people she supports.

"I've just so much more out of it, getting to know them and now I have a whole other group of friends and I have an insight into a really rich culture that I never had."

Ms Derry is not the only one. Red Cross general manager for migration Rachel O'Connor told 1 NEWS there had been an "outpouring" of generous Kiwis wanting to help out since March 15.

"In some areas we got as many as four-times the normal amount of inquiries.

"I think people just wanted to do something tangible, do something practical that showed that people who are new to our community are welcome and are a vital part of our community."

Typically, more than 1000 people volunteer with the refugee programme every year.

"Kiwis have always been really generous, but I think after the attacks we all learned a lot about how hard it can be when you're settling in a new community.

"It's just the best of Kiwis to be welcoming, to be kind, to show compassion, to give somebody a fair go and that's what we saw in the face of the worst of humanity - we saw Kiwis show the best of humanity."

Only two weeks before the attacks, Christchurch opened as a refugee settlement location. With new families who had just arrived, Ms O'Connor said it was a heart-wrenching day trying to track down where their families were after hearing about the shootings.

None of the new settlers were harmed.

"Our job is to help people settle and integrate into New Zealand when they've fled from violence and conflict and then all of a sudden we've had this experience of suddenly people are fleeing violence in this new community where they were meant to be rebuilding their lives."

Refugees, particularly those who had only arrived two weeks earlier, had a lot of anxiety and nervousness about what life in New Zealand was going to be like after the attack, Ms O'Connor said.

She said the outpouring of support from Kiwis though had helped settle things down for rattled families.

"One thing for us that struck after the March attacks was the impact of how such a small action can have on a person's life.

"We spoke to people who's neighbours had come over and brought flowers, or had said hello for the first time, they'd never met them - that has a massive impact on somebody's life and so we encourage Kiwis to keep doing that."

The quota of refugees is increasing to 1500 next year, but Ms O'Connor said New Zealand had been resettling refugees for over 40 years. "We are experienced, we know exactly what to do and Kiwis are good people, Kiwis offer that hand of friendship, Kiwis are caring and compassionate - we're exactly the type of country that should be resettling refugees."

Ms O'Connor still sees Christchurch as a good location for people to relocate to, but added staff were wanting to learn more about how to address everyday racism in their community.

"It does unfortunately happen in our community. Sometimes it's small and sometimes it's big and we need to find ways to address racism in every form it takes." The topic would be added to new volunteers' training.

The Red Cross is always looking for more support workers for refugees.

"One of the most exciting things when you're supporting a refugee family is getting to be a part of all those firsts," she said. "So a volunteer might take the kids to school for the first time, introduce them to the neighbours for the first time, even your first grocery shop if it's a country you've never been to can be an unusual experience for the first time around."

Your playlist will load after this ad

The Red Cross has seen four times the normal amount of people inquiring to work in the refugee programme. Source: 1 NEWS