TODAY |

Opinion: My refugees have felt the wrath of Kiwi racism

When the Syrians arrive, let's not pretend that as a country we're more accepting than we actually are.

Refugee children resettled in NZ
Refugee children resettled in NZ - Tasha Impey Source: 1 NEWS

Are you watching from afar in disgust as the sickening refugee crisis unfolds in Europe?

Are you doing your bit and making a donation, but never feel quite sure whether it bought a young girl's new school uniform, fed a family or perhaps was used to paint the walls of a fancy NGO building?

In my spare time I help refugees resettle in New Zealand and it has profoundly changed my life - but hopefully more so, theirs.

However, at times I've been very embarrassed in the company of my refugees.

They have been victim to some vile racial slurs - to the tune of, "go back to your country you f****** Muslim". That was said to a six-year-old girl by her new neighbour - a 40 something New Zealand European mother-of-three.

It would be unjustly arrogant of us to sit here on a high horse and believe we are the most open-minded, open-hearted nation on earth. - Tash Impey

I look after a family of 10, spanning three generations, who spent seven years as urban refugees in Syria.

It may seem unbelievable in the current climate but they originally sought refuge in Syria after brutal actions inflicted on their family by the merciless Al Qaeda forced them to flee their home country.

Before the civil war took hold, they remember Syria fondly – beautiful scenery, snow, sunshine, friends, like-minded Arabic people and most of all it was safe.

Over the next four years they endured torture, starvation, kidnapping, daylight deprivation and long periods of separation from each other.

I'm not writing this to share their personal experiences - which they would prefer to leave behind - or in any way exploit their confidence in me.

Hundreds of refugees overwhelmed Hungarian police lines near the Serbian border overnight Source: Associated Press

But let us remember that this crisis stems from the evil actions of human beings, and in its wake we have the opportunity and the responsibility to be great and compassionate human beings.

Refugees fleeing persecution do not instantly attain happiness on arrival. Yes, there is a honeymoon period, but then they need volunteers to help with their transition, and they need everyone else to cut them some slack.

It's all very easy to campaign from the couch or from behind the computer screen, telling the government to step up and help.

They've done that now, with 750 Syrians arriving in New Zealand over the next three years.

But providing them with a safe country is only the very, very beginning.

It would be unjustly arrogant of us to sit here on a high horse and believe we are the most open-minded, open-hearted nation on earth.

It's easy to criticise Hungary for building that barbed fence but you don't see a million people desperately walking through our country, sleeping on our railroads, passing through and leaving a mess in their wake at the height of our tourist season.

On the flipside, we can look in awe at Germany, and also Austria, for providing a sanctuary for a whopping 800,000 refugees. 

But what can we do in little old NZ?

The impact our small country can make on a global scale will pale in comparison to Germany, but the way we conduct ourselves when the Syrians arrive will be immeasurable to these individuals and families.

Kiwis, let's stop pretending we are more accepting than we actually are 

Racism is prevalent and our refugees feel the wrath. 

With the family I look after, the 11-year-old stays home from school most days because she is relentlessly bullied and struggles to make friends. On arrival she had simplistic dreams of just being an educated female. Now, things have become too complicated.

Often when we talk about religion, the family makes a point of playing down their devotion.

They never perform their prayers in my presence despite all their phones sounding off at prayer call. Obviously I don't mind but they somehow feel they must cover up their beliefs to fit in.

They see the news and they know some idiots can't tell the difference between Islamic extremists and those who have kept the Quran in context. This saddens me, in a country where we supposedly don't discriminate against religion.

They don't discriminate against me - an unmarried atheist young woman - despite it being a very foreign concept to them. "You really believe in nothing?", they ask curiously, but light heartedly.

So when these Syrians arrive, I ask you to be kind, be patient and be encouraging.

Their culture is starkly different but it's also fascinating; their language is complex and English seems impossible and will take time to learn, and they are dealing with post-traumatic stress.

We must help them integrate into Kiwi life while respecting where they came from

There's much more to accepting refugees, housing them and giving them an allowance to kick-start their new life in NZ, and these are all things that our government generously provides.

Not long after my six-year-old refugee arrived in New Zealand, we were walking home from her primary school in west Auckland and I bought her her first ever ice cream. She chose one of those chocolate paddle pop tubs and as we happily strolled along, out of her cute chocolate-stained mouth came a faint tune.

She was quietly, and very casually, singing Tutira Mai Nga Iwi, letting me in on what she'd learned at school. It brought tears to my eyes and happiness to my heart.

Through my volunteering, we have endured together the expected highs and lows.

It never fails to overwhelm me how positive and generous they are considering their circumstances, usually in the way of food. I must go for a long run and be starving before they feed me a week's worth of food in one sitting.

Arabic food cooked by resettled refugees in NZ
Arabic food cooked by resettled refugees in NZ Source: 1 NEWS

Exotic, different, delicious.

I might help them read their report cards to beaming, proud parents, show them how to catch the right bus for their first day at AUT or give them a driving lesson.

My family and friends have helped too. I was inundated with people's generosity when turning these houses into homes.

Furniture was donated, along with clothes and bedding. Even sewing machines, zoo passes, tickets to Kelly Tarlton's. Knowing what they were giving was ending up directly in the hands of my refugees was comforting to people who question ways to help.

I had no ulterior motive when I embarked on this other than to help some people who by no fault of their own, have nothing.

Trips to the zoo with resettled refugees in Auckland
Trips to the zoo with resettled refugees in Auckland Source: 1 NEWS

We must remember, they didn't choose to leave, they had to. And now they want to be cardiologists, "kind Kiwi" policemen and teachers.

All I hope is that I can in some way facilitate their dreams by making that transition into a foreign culture more comfortable. I have no doubt they will be Kiwis we are proud of and be inspirations in their ability to overcome adversity.

I love them and they love me - and that is a bonus I never envisioned would come from this.

We have a role beyond paying our taxes, putting pressure on the government, and expressing our compassion. Help them blossom.

If you're interested in volunteering in some capacity, including becoming a part of the refugee resettlement programme, all information is on this NZ Red Cross website.