Flood of support for refugees arriving in Christchurch

7:05 am on 20 June 2019

Just two weeks before the mosque attacks in Christchurch, the city welcomed its first contingent of refugees since the 2010 earthquake.

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Photo: pixabay - Capri23auto

Today on World Refugee Day, the Red Cross is looking back on what has been one of their most "unusual", but successful resettlements, of 22 people from Afghanistan and Eritrea.

General manager of migration Rachel O'Connor said in the wake of the 15 March events it looked for a brief time like the refugee programme, which pairs newcomers with local volunteers, might have to be put on hold again.

But that changed with a three-fold increase in volunteer inquiries and a "beautiful outpouring of support".

Ms O'Connor said the events of 15 March initially left the 22 refugees feeling quite anxious.

"Our job is really to help people rebuild their lives after escaping war and conflict... we had people who had arrived and were welcomed in Christchurch, then suddenly had this horrific event happen on their doorstep," she said.

"There was an hour when it was just incredibly frightening... before we were able to confirm that all of them were safe, as well as our staff."

An initial debriefing was held for Red Cross staff and the refugees. With help from an organisation called Refugees are Survivors, extra mental health support was offered. That was then bolstered, Ms O'Connor said, by an influx in volunteer inquiries from members of the public.

"I think people just wanted to tangibly do something that can respond to the attacks, in, you know, volunteering to support somebody who's new to the community."

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Rachel O'Connor says people all over New Zealand are reaching out to newcomers in their communities. Photo: Supplied

She said in the weeks that followed, people were reaching out not just to the new group of refugees in Christchurch, but to newcomers across the country.

"We were hearing stories of families who just arrived and the neighbours came over, bringing by bouquets of flowers, and inviting people over for dinner. People who maybe had no interaction with the neighbours, all of a sudden, there was this kind of social connection," she said.

Today is World Refugee Day and the Red Cross said events are planned across the country. Ms O'Connor said it is a day of celebration, to acknowledge everything that refugees bring to New Zealand - but also for contemplation, acknowledging the millions of people in the world who have been the victims of conflict.

She said the Red Cross are always welcoming new expressions of interest if people want to help out as refugee support volunteers. There are eight resettlement locations across the country, with about 600 current volunteers.

Groups of refugees will continue to arrive in Christchurch approximately every two months.

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