Lending a hand in lockdown

From Voices, 7:00 am on 20 April 2020
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Photo: RNZ/ Red Cross

David Jebanayagam met Naing Minh Aung in February this year for the start of Naing's community orientation activities, but for now their only interaction is a few phone calls each day. 

“As a volunteer, I’m learning how to effectively support a community member, a former refugee, from my home” says David Jebanayagam, a refugee support volunteer with New Zealand Red Cross.

Each year, the New Zealand Red Cross helps settle hundreds of former refugees in new homes across the country. 

During this lockdown the Red Cross is actively supporting 358 families - about 1300 people all together through their long-running volunteer programme.  

New Zealand Red Cross is a primary provider of resettlement support for refugees in New Zealand – from assisting with language, creating employment pathways, providing trauma recovery support, and assisting with restoring family links and member identification in cases of separation.

After spending six weeks in the care of Immigration NZ at Auckland's Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, refugees are all then resettled in new communities across Palmerston North, Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin, Invercargill, Nelson, Hamilton and Christchurch.

The coronavirus lockdown has brought things to a halt for many refugees who were expecting to move to their new homes in our eight resettlement cities.

Rachel O’Connor, GM, Migration, NZ Red Cross, says there are approximately 150 families in Mangere who couldn’t be settled before lockdown and are being cared for and supported by NZ Immigration. She says once lockdown level changes they may then leave there and be settled in communities. That’s when Red Cross begins to work with them through the volunteer programme.

With them each step of the way are volunteers helping with language, orientation, activities like grocery shopping, understanding ATMs, accessing WINZ support, registering at their local GP – things that are all very significant for every new arrival into the community.  

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Photo: RNZ/ Red Cross

Most volunteers are placed with families and individuals for a six month period. They usually meet with their newly resettled family almost every other day in the first few weeks. The first two to four weeks of a placement are generally the busiest as they go about helping with settling in tasks. After the first six weeks, volunteers typically spend time with their family or individual on a weekly basis.

The current restrictions under the lockdown substantially change the way volunteers go about assisting former refugees. Yet, somehow lending a hand during lockdown continues.

Rachel says that they’ve been seeing volunteers get creative around how they keep in touch with these refugee families – from reading bedtime stories on Facetime, to extended phone calls and Whatsapp groups to video calls.

“We all need extra support during this time -  we all need to feel connected and that we have friends out there..and that’s what those volunteers are doing”, says Rachel.

Rachel O'Connor, GM, Migration - NZ Red Cross

Rachel O'Connor, GM, Migration - NZ Red Cross Photo: RNZ/ Red Cross

Across New Zealand the Red Cross has about 10,000 volunteers helping out with various programmes. During lockdown nearly 300 of them continue to offer remote help to former refugees.

Sri Lankan volunteer David Jebanayagam has had many years of experience with internally displaced people in his home country which suffered years of ethnic violence.

When he arrived in New Zealand two years ago he decided on volunteering his time with former refugees in Palmerston North where he now lives.

The lockdown is challenging for him as he tries to ensure he’s connected and available for any help to 27-year-old Naing Minh Aung.

Naing arrived from Myanmar and reunited with his parents in Palmerston North in February. Within weeks of his arrival he had to adjust to not only a new life but a new life in lockdown.

David, he says, is one of his first friends in Palmerston North.

Naing considers himself lucky and knows how hard it could be for those that don’t have any family here. While Naing hunkers down with his parents during lockdown, many former refugees are here on their own.

30 year-old Fatema Mohamed Sugule is one of them. Fatema’s sister and father were both killed in the civil war in Somalia. In 2017, she first made her own way out to Yemen and then Malaysia. She arrived in New Zealand as a refugee in November last year.

Fatema may not have much in the way of family here but having Red Cross volunteers like Danielle Mulhern check in on her regularly makes this lockdown feel a little less isolating. “Before it was like volunteers but now they have become family…that’s how they are helping.”

Fatema says that no matter what and where, she is always happy. “I feel I have family in New Zealand” she says about the friendship and bond she’s forged with her volunteers.

“Inshallah everything will be OK after lockdown..I miss them” says Fatema about her Red Cross family and friends.

Fatema and her Red Cross volunteers

Fatema and her Red Cross volunteers Photo: RNZ/ Red Cross

Danielle, who Fatema calls Danny, says that through whatsapp voice messages, video calls and photos, they probably talk more now that before lockdown. Both fans of cooking, the pair exchange recipes, ideas and photos and every now and then Fatema will also practice her English with Danny, who is for now, a virtual volunteer with Fatema.

For both of them this has become much more than a “volunteer and refugee” relationship – “it’s a lovely friendship we have” says Danny.

About the refugee community during this lockdown Rachel O’Connor says; “they have lived lessons. Something all of us can learn from. These are people who are incredibly resilient and I’m sure like the rest of New Zealand will rise up to the challenge of this [lockdown]."