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In their own words: What it's like growing up as a refugee or migrant kid in New Zealand

Young migrant and refugee New Zealanders shared their stories with 1 NEWS as part of our series marking 50 years since the UN adopted the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Migrant and refugee kids from Mixit, a community project using the arts to support migrant youth, tell their stories. Source: 1 NEWS

What challenges do refugee kids in New Zealand face?

Mixit director Wendy Preston says: "young people arriving here in New Zealand aren't necessarily equipped in lots of really central ways that we don't even question."

Mixit is a community development project based in West Auckland that uses the arts to support youth with refugee and migrant backgrounds overcome challenges, gain confidence and make friends through creativity.

"They pretty predominantly come from education systems that are all about rote-learning. And they're not encouraged to have a voice."

A lot of young people Ms Preston works with at Mixit come from families and cultures were it is disrespectful to look people in the eye, but in New Zealand avoiding eye contact can be considered "shifty" or "dodgy".

"The live between both worlds... so they're juggling all these multiple identities and each identity's got a different code of practice and codes of behaviour," she says.

Mixit helps to "build some really important life skills that these young people need and often don't have, in order to be able to navigate their way forward into new communities here in New Zealand," Ms Preston says.

Not only that, but it helps refugee youth find a place of belonging.

"It was the first time I saw a place in New Zealand where a lot of people from different cultures, from different backgrounds, they all looked different, together in a room having so much fun and laughter, and I thought, 'I want a piece of that'," said Mixit alumna and youth leader, Hana Mender.

But years on from resettlement these young Kiwis still face prejudice.

"Still to this day a lot of people the first thing they ask me is; ‘Where are you from?" says Ms Mender.

"And it's kind of like… 'Henderson'.

"And then they say, 'Where are you really from?'

"With me it's quite complex because my parents are Eritrean, and I’m almost like a third culture in a sense because I was born and brought up in Sudan, but my parents are Eritrean, so I carry that culture, and then I moved here at the age of thirteen to New Zealand, so it’s kind of like I can’t really answer.

"This is my home, I don’t really know much about Eritrea, I haven’t been there. So it’s kind of like belonging was a big thing as well."

Ms Mender says some people find it offensive, but she doesn't anymore.

"I actually see it as an opportunity to reach out and explain to a person why I feel the way I am and why I chose to identify as a Kiwi or an Afrokiwi."

What was it like coming to New Zealand?

Younis Abdallah, 16, from Chad says it was really different coming to New Zealand and not understanding the language.

"People used to say, 'hi', but we didn't know what that meant.

"We thought it was a bad thing because in my country we only say hi to animals."

Starting a new school and not knowing the language can be daunting.

"I was really shy, talking to girls, or boys, or anything. And if they tried to say 'hi', or anything I would pretend I was sleeping, I wouldn’t answer any questions or anything," said Younis.

Jaihoon Bayangar, 17, found it difficult socialising at school when he was trying to learn better English.

Ms Mender, 23, agreed.

"It was quite challenging to begin with, with the language barrier."

"But then, coming into New Zealand people are quite shy, so I struggled a lot at school, I was shy because I didn’t speak the language, and then my peers were either shy or didn’t really understand how to approach me.

"So I spent most of my lunchtime break unfortunately with my sibling."

What is in store for the future of refugee resettlement in New Zealand?

As the refugee quota is set to double under the new government, more culturally diverse young Kiwis will be growing up in New Zealand.

But that means more resources for programmes like Mixit will be needed in the years following resettlement.

"There is an enormous amount of resources, focus and understanding put into the early stage of arrival," says Ms Preston.

"And then after a year or two it kind of tapers off…it takes years of everybody getting involved to make this work at a community level."

She thinks doubling the quota in 2018 will be beneficial, but believes the government needs to make a commitment to resources.

"You've got to make that commitment to walk the talk for the years that it takes to build really strong communities."