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SocietyJune 20, 2021

Essential Kiwi Legends: Celebrating Aotearoa’s refugees turned essential workers

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Aziz, Maria, Paul, and Najmo are former refugees who’ve spent the past year involved in New Zealand’s Covid-19 response. Elodie Berthe of New Zealand Red Cross introduces us to these Kiwi legends.

Aziz Al Sa’afin

Most mornings, viewers of Three’s AM Show wake up to journalist Aziz Al Sa’afin talking about anything from breaking news to what’s happening on social media. Many of the conversations he instigates during these segments hark back to his childhood and personal journey to Aotearoa as a refugee.

Aziz was born in 1989 in Kuwait, where his family was caught in the crossfire of war when Iraqi military troops entered the country. His family went into hiding in their bunker underneath their house, but things took a turn for the worse when his mum became a target: she’d had a comfortable job working at the Lebanese Embassy, and now, as a result of the conflict, she and her family were no longer safe.

“My mum explained to me that everyone went into hiding – it was a war zone,” says Aziz. “There was no food, no clothing. My uncles would go out to scavenge for food and clothes while we were hiding. I spent the first 18 months of my life in a bunker, hiding.”

“I never knew what was going on, I was very protected in that sense. All power to my mother for that. She protected my experience from the war and made it look normal.”

Aziz’s family was able to eventually escape Kuwait, but they were kept in the dark about their destination until they finally set foot in New Zealand where they were offered refugee resettlement.

“We were so happy to be here, it didn’t matter where we were, we were safe,” he says.

Those early days in Aotearoa were not easy for the Al Sa’afin family, who had little money and were frequently moved between social housing. At times, they were even forced to sleep rough.

“As my mum said, we escaped one war and we found ourselves fighting another one here. It was a different kind of war, but it was a war nonetheless, fighting for a better life,” says Aziz.

His eyes light up when he talks about the role his mother played in protecting him from the harsh realities around them.

“Mum made my life a bit of an adventure, it was a journey every day, so, I never really realised the severity of our social status and where we came from – not until I was really old enough to understand.”

Fitting in with other kids was something Aziz struggled with throughout his childhood. He felt ashamed of his culture and his past, so he tried to hide his background in order to ‘blend in’.

“I grew up thinking I should be embarrassed about my culture and hide my identity,” he says. “I was scared of talking about my culture at school, especially after 9/11.

“Then, as a teenager, I grew out of that and learned not to care about what anyone else thought. And the more I achieved at school, the more leadership opportunities I got, and, in those moments, I quickly realised the importance of representation. As those ideas started to form in my mind, I became myself and understood the importance of being myself.”

Aziz Al Sa’afin sits at his TV desk in front of a microphone, smiling
Aziz Al Sa’afin. (Photo: supplied.)

The perfect role

Aziz’s career pathway to journalism is not altogether surprising. He has always loved listening to people and talking to them about their stories, which are two key attributes that any good journalist needs.

“I was fired from my first job at McDonald’s because I talked too much to the customers,” he laughs. “I came home crying because I got fired, so my mum told me to go find a job that allowed me to talk to people.”

Another thing that inspired Aziz to work in media was that very few people looked like him on television when he was growing up. He wanted to change that.

“One of my biggest drivers is to be a voice for people who can’t be heard, and be a representation for those who don’t see themselves on screen. I was in that position as a kid and I know how important it would have been for me growing up. Now, in the position that I find myself in, because I believe in the person that I am, I am proud of where I’ve come from. I am a proud refugee.”

Helping Kiwis get through

During disasters, journalists play a key role in sharing important safety messages and providing impartial reporting. During a global health emergency, their responsibility is no different. At Covid-19 alert level three and four lockdowns in Aotearoa, journalists were deemed essential workers – including Aziz.

“I didn’t realise the importance of what I was doing during lockdown, not until many months later,” says Aziz.

“A number of people have come up to me to say how important it was for them to be tuning in to the show every day during lockdown. To watch me having a laugh made them laugh, and that was an important part of their day.”

During the nationwide lockdown, Aziz built a studio in his bedroom. He set up a camera and lights to go live every morning, and conducted his research ahead of the show there. When Aucklanders were asked to go into lockdown again, Aziz was broadcasting from the field, including outside Covid-19 testing stations.

“It was an intense time. Our job as broadcasters was to keep people company in one of the hardest times in their life.

“I had to disseminate important information, which is the other part of the puzzle. Whilst I was there to entertain people, part of my job was also being a public service broadcaster. We were there to disseminate the right information. There was so much information online, so we were the truth-tellers. We were there to inform people on what to do and how to do it. It was a big responsibility.”

This responsibility will keep being of the utmost importance as Aotearoa rolls out its vaccination programme over the coming months.

“There is a lot of misinformation around the vaccine at the moment,” he says. “I definitely recognise how important it is to tell people the right information.”

Maria Jojoa

Maria Jojoa had never heard of “Nueva Zelanda” when she found out that was where she and her family were headed, under the New Zealand Refugee Quota programme. Unknown as it was, it still represented a place of safety and peace, after three long and difficult years in Ecuador, and before that, in Colombia. It was May 19, 2018 when the family – Maria, husband Jose and daughter Nidia – arrived to a cold Auckland day that meant shopping for jackets was one of their first acts in their new country.

First, the family spent six weeks in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, where a crash course in New Zealand culture prepared them for their new home town: Invercargill, where they were met by Red Cross volunteers bearing even warmer jackets to better help the family adjust to the southern city’s chilly climate. “Our two volunteers are really good,” Maria says. “They are part of the family now. They’ve been very helpful with everything.”

One of those volunteers introduced Maria to her former workplace, a rest home in Invercargill, in the hope that Maria could get some work experience to improve her English. After just one day as a housekeeper, her employer thought Maria took to the job so well that she could move into paid work immediately. With the help of New Zealand Red Cross’ Pathways to Employment programme, Maria’s induction to the aged-care facility was translated into Spanish. She didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived. Now she is mostly able to get by on her own, with Google Translate on hand when things get difficult.

Four mornings a week, Maria’s works at the aged-cared home. Twice a week, she attends English classes. Nidia has given her and Jose a granddaughter, Salome, and a couple of months after lockdown, Maria and Jose welcomed their own baby boy, Daniel, into the world. She calls it a “busy life, but a happy one”. 

Maria Jojoa at work. (Photo: supplied.)

By the time Covid-19 reached our shores in early 2020, it was evident that the elderly were particularly at risk of contracting the virus. When New Zealand went into lockdown, aged care facilities took extra measures to protect their residents – and employees like Maria became essential workers. “I felt very privileged to be able to work during the lockdown, and was quite scared at times, but knew that it was very important,” she says.

“It was a bit overwhelming at first, because we had to be extremely careful around sanitising our hands and cleaning surfaces and make sure there was no transmission. I feel like I had more responsibilities.” 

As an essential worker, Maria was required to come to work. Her job was crucial – cleaning surfaces to ensure the virus wouldn’t survive, should it have made its way inside the aged care facility.

Another difficulty Maria faced during lockdown was the change in the way she was able to interact with residents, who were moved to another part of the home while she was cleaning their room.

“I missed talking to the residents. I feel very happy when I can understand them and help them in any way. But I felt sad when I couldn’t speak with them [during alert levels three and for].”

Maria came to New Zealand for her family’s safety; she came full circle when she was tasked with helping to keep it safe for all of us. 

Paul Kumbuka

Paul Kumbuka has dedicated his life to supporting and advocating for people in need. That his entire ethos revolves around kindness and compassion is all the more impressive when you learn about the experiences Paul himself has endured.

In 2004, Paul was 20 years old and in the middle of his political science degree at university in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when he was detained and tortured for 20 days due to his political beliefs. His injuries were so severe that he wound up in hospital; some for the other people arrested later died in prison. With the help of a friend, Paul managed to break out of his hospital captivity, but his life was still in danger. He had no choice but to flee to neighbouring Uganda.

“I walked and hitched a ride on these big lorries until I reached Uganda. I crossed the border illegally, because I had no identification, no visa, no passport, nothing.”

Six months after his arrival in Uganda, he was granted refugee status. This meant he was protected under international law and couldn’t be sent back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Until 2007, I was alone and had no news from my family back in Congo and had no idea how they were. Life was hard. Being in Uganda for more than nine years was sad for my soul. I couldn’t achieve my dreams. Sometimes I got something to eat, sometimes I didn’t. I didn’t receive any support.”

Paul needed an outlet – something he could direct his energy and ambition in to. He quickly got involved with local churches and non-governmental organisations to support young people in his community. As years passed, Paul’s involvement with these groups grew and he became the country director of a French organisation supporting children, refugees, and women in the region.

“It was still dangerous for us Congolese; we were still attacked in Uganda simply because we were from Congo.”

Paul Kumbuka. (Photo: supplied.)


In 2009, Paul’s wife, also a refugee from Congo living in Uganda, was offered settlement in New Zealand with her family as part of New Zealand’s Refugee Quota programme. Paul promptly began the process to get a visitor visa to see her, but it wasn’t until 2014 that he and his 10-year old daughter, Judith, were given a temporary visa allowing them to be reunited with his wife in Kirikiriroa, Hamilton.

As visitors, Paul and his daughter were unable to access governmental support systems for schooling or finances, so life was difficult for the newly reunited family. Paul decided to apply for asylum in Aotearoa, which meant asking to be recognised as refugees. This process included proving that it was unsafe for them to be sent back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a process he had already gone through in Uganda.

As Paul was already recognised as a refugee overseas, this process only took six months. He found some casual work in Hamilton and quickly got involved with New Zealand Red Cross as a refugee support volunteer, helping newly arrived refugees settle into their new city.

“I love working with communities and helping people – that is my aim in life,” he says. “I understand how I suffered back home, in Uganda, and here when I arrived, so I want to support as much as I can, and I decided to join Red Cross.

As a refugee support volunteer, Paul has helped multiple families from Colombia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan settle into their new lives in Hamilton. “I enjoy volunteering, because I meet with different people, different cultures, different faiths, different values and different beliefs.”

In 2017, Paul embarked on a health studies qualification and found full-time work with HealthCare New Zealand as a Community Support Worker. His role involves providing care and support to people in their homes, from lending a hand with their shopping, to preparing food or helping them take a shower and medication.

“When I see their faces when I support them, I feel happy. I love my job,” says Paul.

A few years later Paul was offered a paid role at New Zealand Red Cross providing language, cultural and informed support to newly arrived former refugee families in Hamilton. Passionate about both roles, Paul devoted himself to two different jobs at the same time.

Two essential jobs

When the pandemic hit, both Paul’s jobs were granted “essential service” status. Paul played a crucial role in supporting vulnerable members of our communities during lockdown.

“I worked a lot during lockdown because both my two jobs needed me. I started my health care job at 6am to see the people in the morning, give them medication and breakfast. At 9am sharp, I’d finish and go home to support former refugee families, then at 3.30pm, I would go back to my other job.”

Paul provided a wide range of support in his role as a community support worker, from picking up medications and shopping, to keeping clients company and reassuring them in what was a difficult and often frightening time.

His role with Red Cross included daily phone check-ins with 12 former refugee families, some of whom had only been in Hamilton for a few days prior to the country going into full lockdown. Paul played an important part in ensuring these families clearly understood the new measures announced by the government and that they had everything they needed to stay at home safe, with a robust self-isolation plan in place.

“It was tough, but as long as we are supporting our people and keeping them safe, it was worth it.”

Najmo Mohamed

Najmo Mohamed was born in Somalia, a country in the Horn of Africa. Her family moved to Ethiopia when she was very young; then, when she was three, they joined her grandmother in New Zealand through the Refugee Family Reunification programme.

“We were struggling in Ethiopia, so my grandmother, who had been resettled in New Zealand as a refugee, fought for us to join her,” says Najmo. “We came to New Zealand for a better life, for a better education.”

Najmo grew up in Auckland with her parents and four siblings. She says things were not always easy. “Growing up was hard because my parents didn’t speak English. They were struggling to fit in to the culture, but it was nice because we had a lot of Somali community members around.

“You can see you are different, but then you learn to respect everyone with a different culture and ethnicity, and they give it back to you. You also learn not to listen to others who don’t give you that respect back.”

Najmo’s eyes light up when she talks about her grandmother.

“We have a big family,” she explains. “Everybody is close, we all come together and I used to always go to my grandma’s house. I still do – she is 98 years old! But she has got short-term memory loss and forgets things, so she still sees me as a little girl.”

Najmo Mohamed. (Photo: supplied.)

Growing up, she favoured spending time with her aunts and the elders, listening to their stories and helping them with various tasks. These memories helped Najmo realise that aged care work could be her ideal profession.

One of her school teachers in Auckland encouraged her to follow this passion, and pointed out what qualifications she would need. After high school, Najmo went on to complete a health studies qualification.

With certificates in hand, Najmo started to apply for jobs. She quickly realised that it doesn’t matter how passionate you are – finding work can be difficult.

“It was hard to find a job because I didn’t have work experience in age care. It was very hard, so I got help from Red Cross.”

After getting assistance from the organisation’s Pathways to Employment programme, which helped her work on her CV and job application, Najmo was offered a role at the Elizabeth Knox Home and Hospital in Epsom, Auckland. It was her first ever job.

Less than a year later, Covid-19 hit. The pandemic had a huge and immediate impact on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities, including the residents Najmo supports at Elizabeth Knox. The facility closed its doors in early March 2020, a few weeks before the rest of New Zealand went into lockdown.

Caregivers around the country, including Najmo, played a crucial role during the pandemic. As essential workers, they became the connection between at-risk community members in aged care facilities and their friends or family members who were no longer able to visit.

“I really felt for the residents because they couldn’t see their families. It was our responsibility to keep them connected to their family, so their family could know how they are doing,” says Najmo.

“I felt like I had to come to work because our residents’ families couldn’t. We had a responsibility.”

Najmo took that responsibility very seriously. Along with setting up online calls with residents’ family members, she took people for walks outside for some fresh air and company. Caregivers were key in ensuring people didn’t feel isolated.

“I really enjoyed coming to work each day during lockdown. I really felt like I had something important to do. That’s when I felt like an essential worker.”

Today is World Refugee Day and New Zealand Red Cross is acknowledging the important contribution made during Covid-19 by essential workers with a refugee background. Find out more about the Essential Kiwi Legends campaign here.

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