A tale of two refugees

11:58 am on 10 September 2015

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said earlier this week that many refugees are unemployed, isolated and unhappy years after arriving in New Zealand.

We spoke to two refugee families - one from South Sudan and one from Myanmar - about the long process of settling in, finding jobs, and learning how to make New Zealand feel like home.

Abann's story

When Abann Yor learned that he and his young family were going to New Zealand in 2000, he cast his mind back to the little he remembered learning about the country in intermediate school.

Former refugee Abann Yor.

Former refugee Abann Yor. Photo: RNZ / Natasha Frost

"I knew that New Zealand was a tiny island behind Australia, it always came up in the exams," he says. "I remembered four things: first, it's a green country; two languages - Maori language and English; third that New Zealand's population is four million; and that the number of sheep is more than the population. And I thought, 'Wow'.

"My wife said, 'Do you know anything about New Zealand?' And I said, 'Any country where I'll be safe, I need to go.'"

At the time, he was seeking asylum in Syria, where he had been working in an antiques shop for five years to support his family.

Abann, 43, is from South Sudan, the newest country in the world, which has, since 1955, been devastated by civil war and genocide. His father and grandfather were murdered, leaving him, as the oldest man, responsible for supporting the whole family.

Abann's mother, and what remains of his wife's family, is still in South Sudan, which his five children, aged between four and 21, sometimes struggle to understand. His wife, who is studying English, has tried to bring their families over, but found every door closed to them.

"My children ask me, 'Why do our neighbours have their nanny, and we don't have our nanny?' That becomes a family conflict: 'We don't have cousins, why don't we have cousins?' A lot of questions get asked, and sometimes my wife just starts crying, and I can't do anything about it. It's a challenge."

When they arrived at Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, Abann's first thoughts were of finding work to support his family as quickly as possible. He was shocked at how difficult it was - and continued to be. It took him seven years to find full-time employment.

"What kept me resilient in that particular time was being flexible in mind, because what I was expecting was not what I found the reality to be."

He enrolled in a six-month English course at Manukau Institute of Technology, before beginning a four-year programme to qualify as a mechanic. But once he graduated, with no New Zealand experience or connections, he was unable to find work.

"You need to start from zero. And that is treachery, for some people. That might lead to mental illness - for someone who has a PhD and has spent how many years studying, who has a dream to come to New Zealand, just suddenly he finds his qualifications are just in the rubbish. Just analyse that. It's a big, big concern."

While studying, he had been working with other refugees on a voluntary basis to help them to settle in and find employment. A scholarship from Unitec to study not-for-profit management and leadership in 2009 led, eventually, to full-time work as general manager of the Auckland Refugee Community Coalition.

Abann and Mary Yor with their children.

Abann and Mary Yor with their children. Photo: Supplied

Abann says refugees are desperate to work, but struggle to find opportunities.

"Some of them, when they arrive here, they say, 'oh New Zealand, it's just like heaven'. But once they're settled in the community, they think, 'oh, New Zealand's like hell.'"

Abann is one of the lucky ones: he has community support and his immediate family is here in New Zealand. He says that isolation is a common experience for many refugees.

"There are many people here who don't have any single relative or family. And it's very hard. Sometimes you see them and in their physical body, they're all right, but inside them - their mental health ... they thought that New Zealand was the only option for their life. But they find nothing that they were expecting to find here."

He has found it a struggle, too, to adjust culturally, although support with positive parenting as well as help with healthy eating and living programmes have invaluable.

"Our community needed it: coming to a new environment and trying to raise children in a way that we didn't used to do in South Sudan. We understand our lives have changed, and we live in a new environment, and [we are] looking forward to how we can cope with that and balance our lives, living between two cultures."

Abann is proud to be a New Zealander, and wants to do whatever he can to give back to his new home country.

"I want to be proud of being part of this society. I want to be part of this society, who can build it to being in a better position. That's me. I had opportunities, I helped myself, and I'm still pushing to make sure I can do something," he says.

Su's story

Su Hlaing Swe, 33, remembers lying flat on the ground as bullets flew past her and into the coconut tree behind her house. Her partner, Kaohong Rmarn, had his entire village burned to the ground. They are both Mon, a persecuted minority from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Su Hlaing Swe and her partner Kaohong Rmarn.

Su Hlaing Swe and her partner Kaohong Rmarn. Photo: RNZ / Natasha Frost

New Zealand has about 100 Mon people, all of whom have come to the country as refugees. Kaohong, 43, and Su were among the first groups to come, and met one another after they arrived in Auckland. They have a two-year-old daughter.

"We're only a small group of people, so we look after each other," she says.

Su was 13 when she left Myanmar with her sisters and brother-in-law to go to Thailand, where they spent five years living illegally in a refugee camp.

"UNHCR [the UN's refugee agency] was helping us, but no one was allowed to go outside of the camp. Every time you go out, you have to get permission and paperwork, and you could go out for a day but not overnight. My sister's husband was hoping to go to the USA, as they had a few friends there, but they were rejected, so we were interviewed by New Zealand."

The New Zealand officers only told her a little about New Zealand before they left Thailand.

"They said that the weather was cold, it's different, nice and clean. A green country. But we didn't know anything until we got here. We were expecting tall buildings, like overseas, tall and close together, but instead the houses are small, nice and cute. I always say that I like the houses here."

The food, however, was a struggle. "When I first arrived, I couldn't drink raw milk - in our country, we boil it first. The food was a bit hard, but slowly we got used to it, and to sandwiches."

Shortly after they arrived, friends of Su's walked all day to try and find an Asian shop selling chillies, she says, but they got lost trying to get home. They had no map, spoke no English, and had misremembered Mount Wellington as Wellington - which made asking for directions extremely confusing.

"People were telling them, 'You need to catch a plane, or a train'. They walked all day to get home. It's a bit hard, but you learn through what happens to you," she says.

Like many people in a new place, Su struggled with the language barrier. She had only very basic English - the alphabet, some conversational phrases - and was scared of making mistakes.

"You don't know how to ask [for] things, and when they try to talk to you, you don't know what to answer to them. You feel too shy to talk to people. Actually, they don't mind [if you make mistakes], but you worry about it instead of trying."

Su spent four years studying - three years at Selwyn College, making up for the little education she had before she arrived as well as learning English, and then a year at the New Zealand Institute of Fashion Technology.

"We never forget our teachers. They looked after us, and were very kind to us. It was very different from in our country, where we study very little at school, so it made us try very hard. Our dream was to get a better job - a good job - one day, so we don't have to rely on help from the government - so we can get a job and look after ourselves."

She was desperate to get out of the four-bedroom Housing New Zealand house she shared with her three sisters, her sister's husband and their three children, and so found work in the clothing industry at the age of 22, four years after arriving in New Zealand.

Su started out in packing, also working as a waitress at night, and worked her way up until she was the manager's assistant. She dreams of doing accounts in an office, once her daughter is in childcare next year, but says she was lucky to find work at all, something many refugees struggle with.

"The only thing is work experience. Most companies and workplaces look for work experience, but we don't have any. But if they don't employ us, how can we get experience? This is our first job - we've just arrived in this country.

"I want to get my career to a higher place, through better education. I'm doing computer studies now, and learning a little bit more English. I still need to study more, though," she says.

Today, Su and her partner own their own home in Glen Innes and are part of a community of Mon people.

Su's CV is full of previous experience and positive references, and she's studying part-time as well as doing a little sewing, while her partner works full-time repairing gearboxes.

But is she happy here? "Yes," she says, a little warily. "But we're still struggling."

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