Is our country’s heart as big as it was 72 years ago? We’ll soon find out

New Zealanders need to stand up for refugees today, just as we did in the past, writes Dame Susan Devoy

Seventy-two years ago our Prime Minister and our country took in more than 700 child refugees when no one else would help.

They had survived the Third Reich, endured life in Russian work camps and trekked from Siberia to Iran. The Polish children – most of them orphans – boarded a troop carrier that took them safely through the Pacific Theatre of War, arriving in Wellington Harbour on a sunny October morning.

Photographer Earl Bailey was there and as the emaciated youngsters walked silently down the gang plank, he said the Kiwis gathered for the welcome hadn’t been prepared for the raw emotion and empathy they felt for these tiny refugees.

Even Earl, a hardened news photographer, broke down.

One of the children remembered the huge crowd of people who greeted them, and wondered why some of them were crying. She said the train trip to Pahiatua took a long time as it stopped at every town where locals were waving flowers and flags. She remembered friendly strangers giving out small gifts. Someone handed her a lolly and it was to be the first lolly she had ever tasted.

And she wrote: “I could not believe that strangers could be so kind. I think this restored my belief in humanity.”

Polish refugees arriving in Wellington on board the General Randall, 1944. Photographer: John Dobree Pascoe. Via Alexander Turnbull Library

This story of our history makes me proud to be a New Zealander.

But the reality of this story is that the journey of those tiny refugees did not end when they got to Pahiatua.

Their journey as New Zealanders had just begun.

From then on it was up to everyday New Zealanders to help them on their new journey.

They were supported as they settled in to their new lives by the amazing people of Pahiatua and Wairarapa, by the Catholic Church, by community organisations, by the Government and by everyday New Zealanders. Those brave little children went on to give back to their new homeland, serving their business, civic and local communities across the country: they are quite simply, great New Zealanders.

Right now our newest New Zealanders need our help, they need ongoing support from those of us who live and work in the suburbs and towns they will be living and working in.

Whether they are fleeing Syria, Myanmar or Afghanistan, the people coming to live alongside us have fled horrors we can only imagine: this is not a lifestyle choice, this is about survival. The moment these people and families have begun their new lives as Kiwis they are no longer refugees and the sooner we all start calling them New Zealanders, the better.

When the media attention has died down, we need to stand by these people, their families and their children. This could take many forms.

Standing up for former refugees could mean inviting some to your home, or merely chatting to them at the school concert or introducing yourself at the side-line of the Under-9 soccer game.

Standing up for former refugees is as simple as challenging your friends at dinner parties and BBQs: as I did just last weekend and no doubt as I will for many more weekends to come.

Standing up for our newest Kiwis could mean literally standing up for them when they are sworn at and abused on a bus or walking their kids to school.

That tiny war orphan said when she arrived here she couldn’t believe strangers could be so kind.

She said New Zealanders restored her faith in humanity.

And that’s what this is about, not just the humanity of refugees but also the humanity of everyday New Zealanders.

The coming months will tell whether our country’s heart is as big as it was 72 years ago.


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