28 Feb 2022

Refugee sponsorship scheme sees Kiwis volunteer to help settle migrants

5:36 am on 28 February 2022

New Zealanders are putting their hands up to take on the job of settling refugees, through a new programme that is on top of the annual quota.

Hisham Al Zarzour - victim impact statement. 


Sentencing for Brenton Tarrant on 51 murder, 40 attempted murder and one terrorism charge.

Hisham al-Zarzour recommends the Community Organisation Refugee Sponsorship (CORS) programme having come to New Zealand under the pilot, in 2018. Photo: Stuff / Pool

The Community Organisation Refugee Sponsorship scheme aims to bring in an extra 150 people over the next three years, in addition to the 1500 a year who can come under the government resettlement programme.

Hisham al-Zarzour and his young family arrived in Christchurch in July 2018 as part of the pilot programme.

Barely eight months later, he was caught up in the 15 March massacre at Al Noor Mosque.

He was shot in the hip but survived, trapped under a pile of bodies.

This horrific experience could have turned him against his new home, but it has not - due in large part to the support his family has had through their community sponsors, he said.

"I must admit, at first it was very hard. But it was the reaction from the people that turned my thinking round, people in the supermarket and on the street, and the support from our sponsors.

"It is the kind of thing that could happen in any country."

The relationship with their sponsors from the South West Baptist Church started while he and his wife were still living in Jordan, after fleeing war-torn Syria five years earlier, he said.

They were able to talk, ask questions and even see photographs of their new city, their house and neighbours.

"And the relationship with them, it's friendship and we continue our friendship as neighbours, as friends. And that was very helpful."

During the first test-run of community sponsorship in 2018, four groups nationwide took on 23 newcomers.

The South West Baptist Church, which welcomed three families, is signing on for a larger pilot, which was delayed a year due to Covid closing the borders.

The church's resettlement coordinator, Nick Regnault, said it embraced all the practical aspects of helping people start a new life, such as finding housing, schools, a GP and work.

"But it also involves a lot of friendship stuff - like having meals together, introducing them to other people, helping them to build new lives in New Zealand and I guess being a friend to them while they settle themselves in."

There was a reasonable amount of paperwork involved, he said.

Community sponsors have to provide financial statements, character references and a detailed resettlement plan.

"The very act of putting it together made us think very hard about this undertaking and how we were going to do the things we were putting our hands up to do.

"You are essentially doing the job of resettling these people on behalf of the government and they have to be sure you're up to the task."

There are stricter criteria for refugees to qualify for community sponsorship.

The main applicant must have a good level of English, a tertiary qualification and three years' relevant work experience.

That has drawn criticism from Amnesty International, which is otherwise a keen advocate of community sponsorship.

Its executive director Meg de Ronde said it shut out people who had not been able to continue in work or education.

"And often those people are women, are women with children, women who have been widowed, and who may not have had access to those types of education or work that's required.

"We are thrilled to have the programme, but as always it should be a humanitarian programme that has the broadest possible grounds."

Community sponsorship had been done in Canada since the 1970s and had been transformational for society, she said.

"New Zealand, even with the increase to the quota, is not doing its fair share to help refugees. This is wonderful opportunity to do more, to complement the government programme."

Immigration New Zealand's head of refugee and migrant services Fiona Whiteridge said the high bar was to ensure newcomers had the best chance of integrating.

"It's really aimed at looking at bringing in those people whom we think will be able to settle really well, and it's allowing community organisations to actually bring and sponsor more refugees into New Zealand."

HOST Aotearoa, which is running the programme on behalf of the government, said it was important to have a good match between the refugees' needs and the volunteers' capacity to help.

So far it has received about 50 enquiries from community organisations and individuals interested in taking part and is already helping some with their applications.

Hisham al-Zarzour, who has four children, had no doubts about the value of community sponsorship.

The former geography teacher had more surgery six months ago for his injuries from the mosque shooting - but is back working as an Uber driver.

"The refugee has many worries, many questions before he comes and when he arrives. Community sponsorship is about community, it's not just six months then he's on his own....

"I will tell you now, my choice would be my choice, even after the 15th of March."

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