Amnesty International today hands over 10,276 signatures to Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway in the form of the I Welcome Pledge, which urges the government to make community sponsorship for refugees permanent. This scheme, explains Meg de Ronde of Amnesty International NZ, complements the refugee quota programme, with the difference being that community groups take the lead, providing the support that refugees need to rebuild their lives here.
You’ve probably heard the stats about tens of millions of refugees and felt disempowered, hopeless. It’s tragic, but what can we as individual people actually do about it? I found a compelling answer last year when I went to Canada to see community sponsorship of refugees in action.
Instead of the government taking all the responsibility for refugee families, community groups step up. They provide the logistics – helping newcomers to settle into new homes, get their kids enrolled in schools, figure out the public transport system, enrol in English language classes, go to the doctor and more. But most importantly, they become friends.
In the process, these community groups (or businesses, church groups, unions, clubs, etc) deepen their own friendships. It’s a model that gives me hope for the future. More refugees come to safety and our own communities become more connected and welcoming.
This year New Zealand has been running a small pilot programme. Testing the waters. Which is fantastic. But the government hasn’t yet committed to continuing it.
Amnesty International has met with many of the community groups and newcomers involved. That’s why today we’re handing over a report to Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, urging the government to make community sponsorship an ongoing programme. It works, and there are so many more New Zealanders who would jump at the chance to do something tangible like this. It’s a way to be part of the solution and spread a little hope around the world.
Here are some of the the newcomers, and people sponsoring them, that we met along the way.
Zuheir Al Qattan
Zuheir is 12 months old and obviously incredibly cute. Along with his mum Hayat and his dad Mohammed, he is getting used to a new life in Timaru with help from their local community sponsorship group. It’s a long way from war-torn Syria, from where they fled.
Because of this programme, Zuheir can grow up in safety, go to kindergarten, make friends and play at the park – without the fear of bombs. It’s what Hayat and Mohammed hoped for when they moved halfway around the world to the uncertainty of a new place, a new culture and a new language. They’re now taking English language classes and working towards opening a kebab restaurant.
Mark is the pastor at Gleniti Baptist Church in Timaru, and part of the community group that is sponsoring Zuheir, Hayat and Mohammed. After spending time with refugees in Indonesia, he wanted to do something. To reach out and help people who have been stuck, often for years, in precarious and uncertain situations with no end in sight.
Mark said, “It’s a win-win. The refugee families are gaining a lot, we’re gaining a lot.
“One of the big costs of leaving your home country is being torn away from your support group. This gives them a new support group of people who really care – and offer all sorts of different talents and skills to help them settle in as fast as possible.
“To actually meet the family was quite overwhelming. It made it very personal. Helping them put the building blocks in place to reach their dream is rewarding. I really support this programme, because I think it is a responsible way to bring in refugees.”
Muaz and his wife Berevan fled Syria for Lebanon, where they spent four long years eking out a precarious existence. Finally, they were offered the chance to come to New Zealand. What’s it like, to finally have a chance to rebuild your life after the trauma of war?
Margaret is part of the community group in Nelson that’s sponsoring Muaz and Berevan. And she’s come up with possibly the best description of the experience: “It felt like giving birth to hope.”
Margaret is a member of the St Vincent De Paul Society, which joined forces with three friends in Nelson to form the community sponsor group. She went on to say, “I was particularly moved for some reason, the day that I took them into Nelson on the bus. I thought, I’m so proud to be part of it.
“What we’re getting from this young couple, it’s just a blessing really. They’re so warm and loving and grateful. That’s not why you do it. But it really feels very affirming.
“I’d like to think that I could make some of that a little contagious for some of the people that I know around the country. I could certainly recommend it as something that people might want to choose to do.”
Saralinda is one of the three friends in Nelson who wanted to sponsor a refugee, then reached out to the St Vincent De Paul Society for some extra support to form their community sponsor group.
She really summed up the way this programme makes New Zealand communities stronger, closer and more welcoming when she said, “It’s been a fascinating journey so far. I get a little bit emotional about the team. You know, this little group of people who are just so willing.
“The main beneficiary has been the former refugee families. But you benefit quite often as well. And feel much more connected. That’s been just wonderful.”
While traveling overseas, Miriam gained some perspective on how fortunate we are to live here in New Zealand. She saw the scope of the refugee crisis and was looking for a way to honour the people that she had met. She said, “This seemed like a really cool way to do something practical and tangible.”
Miriam’s role is to coordinate the different volunteers supporting one of the refugee families in Christchurch.
“We’ve been really lucky in that the family we’re working with has a wee baby the same age as mine. So it’s been really nice, we can come and hang out and go to Plunket together and go to Playgroup. It’s really special being able to have cups of tea and just … yarn.
“This seems like such a natural model. In terms of having communities of people who are looking out, who run into each other, who support each other.
“I feel like we haven’t just made friends with our refugee family, we’ve also deepened our friendships with other people.”
It really is inspiring to hear some of the stories of lives changed for the better. And to know that more than 10,000 New Zealanders have signed the I Welcome Pledge, urging the government to make community sponsorship of refugees a permanent programme that will run in addition to our quota system.
When I was in Canada, this approach to refugee sponsorship – to hope – felt like it had become a part of the Canadian DNA. But it can be our story too. Kiwis want to help. Now it’s up to government to decide whether or not to give them the chance.
For more information about the programme see IWelcome.org.nz.