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Heaven is right here: A refugee on his love for New Zealand

Thirty years ago next month, Armagan Sabetian arrived here as a refugee from war-torn Iran. Today, on World Refugee Day, he writes about his love and gratitude for his adopted home country.

Why are secular English-speaking western democracies the destination of choice for so many immigrants from around the globe? Here’s the simple answer: they’re the place to be. Countries like New Zealand are where freedom of thought, civil discourse, rule of law and quality education flourish. They’re places that offer something close to an ideal environment in which to live in peace and to fully realise one’s potential.

For countries like New Zealand – and Australia, the UK and the US – the fact they’re the most attractive places to live is a point of pride and, conversely, an indictment of those violent, corrupt or theocratic countries that their citizens are so desperate to escape. These reasons are precisely why global immigration is a one-way traffic to the west.

The word “refugee” wasn’t always as tainted as it is today. The reasons why people would leave their homelands for a better life – whether from post-WWII Europe or from the infertile coralline Pacific islands – were once obvious and unquestioned. They were refugees. And they shared characteristics common to refugees everywhere: strength, resolve, and a survival instinct.

The earliest known settlement site in New Zealand is the Wairau Bar near Blenheim, where an ornate gravesite includes the remains of at least 44 people. Mitochondrial DNA analysis by Otago University researchers traced their origins to various places in East Polynesia. It’s a long way from eastern Polynesia to New Zealand – whoever these people were, they were no wallflowers. My respect for the tangata whenua of this country is immense, not least for the resilience and will it took to endure such a journey.

I too identify with those traits; I’ve used them to survive and thrive as a refugee in New Zealand. I came here as part of the first 750 UNHCR-allocated refugee group just after my 12th birthday in July 1987. Before that, we spent two years in limbo in Pakistan. My mum, two brothers, a cousin and I had walked for three days in the desert across the border from Iran to Pakistan, travelling only at night to avoid being detected, and hiding during the day time.

My formative years and memories are of life in New Zealand, but I do have memories of playing on a beach as a three year-old in Iran surrounded by bikini clad women, not long before the Islamic revolution in 1979. I remember school during the Iran/Iraq war and being persecuted as a minority Baha’i. Then, when we arrived in New Zealand, I remember the Mangere Refugee Centre. And now I’m a senior lecturer and a marine biologist at Auckland University of Technology. I was recently invited back to the centre to celebrate the opening of state of  art classrooms for teaching new arrivals English language and New Zealand life skills. Quite a trip.

Those early memories are still vivid, but distant and disassociative, as if I am remembering someone else’s life. I’ve lived here for 30 years, and am married to a Pacific Islander. Having been part of New Zealand society for three decades, I honestly cannot think of any other place on this planet I’d rather be. Heaven is right here, where, to put it simply, I am free.

Photo: Getty Images

Refugees come here with nothing in hand but their pride, and are very aware of having nothing to offer their host but their gratitude and loyalty. This is why we are more motivated to make it in our new homeland and become successful, productive members of society. We appreciate the kindness, the volunteers, the resources. The first baby steps are critical, such as AUT English classes, cultural awareness lessons, the road rules, and finding a job through Red Cross NZ. Very basic but important knowledge.

My message to New Zealand is this: continue being your secular, democratic best and welcome the less fortunate in to your country. Your society is the best example of human accomplishment and you should be proud to share it with the world.

There’s just one other thing I wanted to mention, and that’s something the refugee community has consistently failed to do in New Zealand – to play the oval ball game. After 30 years in New Zealand I now can confidently say that to truly be accepted as Kiwis we refugees need to play rugby. Imagine if the next All Blacks centre was called Muhammad Al Jumaili – the government would triple the refugee quota faster than you could say Malakai Fekitoa.


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