Watch the inspiring stories of refugee women living in New Zealand – and find out how to help

Alex Casey talks to Sandra Clark and Francesca Emms about Together We Make a Nation, their multimedia storytelling project that shines a light on refugee women in New Zealand. 

Seeking to tell the stories of former refugee women who now call New Zealand home, Together We Make a Nation weaves together video, yum recipes, data visualisation, cracking yarns and moments of shattering sadness to create a unmissable series of short documentaries. With the world facing the biggest crisis since WWII and approximately 42500 people forced to leave their homes every day, Together: WMN highlights how this global disaster has affected those who have now found safety in our own sleepy suburbs. 

Neary (Cambodia), Ola (Poland), Dalal (Syria) and Yibeth (Colombia) – Gareth White © Together We Make A Nation

Funded by NZ On Air, the documentary series focusses on four women of different generations, all from different corners of the globe, as they share their lives with us in profoundly intimate interviews in their own homes. Dalal from Syria talks about being held at gunpoint on the way to school, Ola from Poland remembers arriving in New Zealand and thinking the sheep were flowers. It’s hilarious at times, heartbreaking in others and all available free and online for you to devour. I talked to Sandra Clark (producer) and Francesca Emms (researcher) about assembling the incredible documentary project.

What inspired you to kickstart Together: WMN, had you been working in the refugee community already?

Sandra: Steve La Hood and I worked on the idea together. It was around the time of the launch of the Double the Quota campaign and it felt timely to shine a spotlight on this issue. We focused on women as they are the heart of a family and often their voices and stories go unheard. The numbers tell us that most refugees are women and children, so we wanted to tell their stories.

Why did you decide to use the interactive documentary format to weave the stories together?

Sandra: The interactive delivery of the documentary allows the viewer to watch a short story while being presented with other multimedia options they may want to interact with. During each story, there’s other information to watch, read and share the viewer is in control of their own experience.

The interactive homepage puts the women front and centre

We didn’t want people to just view this once and go, ‘that’s very nice thank you very much’. We wanted people to really get involved, know that they could do something after viewing it, even if it was just to share it on Facebook or Twitter. Watch in your own time, revisit it multiple times, learn new things each visit, discover more information, a new person, a new recipe, a new way to help.

How were the contributing women selected to tell their stories? They are all so wonderful.

Francesca: We got the word out through Red Cross and other organisations and communities that we were looking for former refugees who wanted to tell their stories. I met with quite a few people. Some who were keen from the get go, others who were interested to know more but decided it wasn’t what they wanted. In the end, we knew we wanted to tell as much of New Zealand’s history of accepting refugees as we could.

Ola tends to the garden

We have Ola, originally from Poland, who was part of New Zealand’s first official refugee programme in the 40s. And there’s Dalal, who came with the first emergency intake from Syria just two years ago. We also wanted a range of ages and situations so there’s Neary who escaped the Khmer Rouge in the ‘80s and our youngest participant, Yibeth, who was just three when her family fled paramilitaries in Colombia and spent 11 years in Ecuador.

The interviews feel like you must have had a very trusting relationship with the women and their families, how did you approach the more traumatic aspects of their pasts?   

Francesca: I spent a lot of time with each of the women and their families before we started filming. We’d catch up over coffee, or I’d go round for a cup of tea. Once they were sure they wanted to get involved, Sandra and Steve would come too so they could meet the core team. They were all so open and so welcoming to us.

Dalal chats to her Mum at the kitchen table

Before filming we went through what they wanted to say, what was important to them, and noted any topics that were off limits. But then everyone surprised us when we started filming, sometimes they spoke about things they hadn’t even told their families about. Throughout the editing process I checked in to see how they felt about including the more harrowing aspects of their stories. They were involved in every decision about how much or how little to include.

Sandra: There was a close bond by the time we got to the filming days. There were times when we were all crying during filming (even the stoic cameramen), and times when we had to stop and have a cup of tea before starting again. I can’t thank these women enough for trusting us to tell their stories.

Can you talk me through the significance of sharing something as simple as a delicious recipe alongside their story? Aside from making me want to eat 1000 empanadas right now?

Francesca: I kept coming back from hanging out with the families and talking about the amazing food I was getting to try. Nuseba makes these beautiful crunchy cookies, and lovely fresh juices, Francia and Israel always insisted I stay for dinner so I got to try all sorts of delicious Colombian foods, Neary and I always met at a Cambodian bakery in the city, and Ola’s barszcz was something Sandra and Gareth (our photographer) got to try early on. It just seemed obvious that sharing food and recipes needed to be part of the project. I got to know these women through sharing meals so it just seems normal that everyone should get to experience that too.

Neary’s delicious Cambodian feast

How did it feel working on this project during the Trump era, and the awful global attitudes towards refugees and immigrants?

Sandra: Our launch date actually happened to be right in the middle of the media frenzy around Trump’s Muslim ban. We went live and people reacted to it immediately. I think people were drawn to something so positive in the middle of all the negativity, not just around refugees, but women.

We really wanted to show everyone how amazing these women are, encourage everyone to go meet their neighbours, not be afraid if you find a former refugee at your workplace, on the bus or standing next to you on a Saturday morning at school or club sport. As Yibeth says in her story, “our differences are on the outside, inside we are all the same.”

Yibeth prepares delicious empanadas

What can individual New Zealanders do to support the refugee community?

Francesca: It really depends on your situation. Maybe you have certain skills, or money, or time, or an old bike that can be done up. If you live in one of the main centres (Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch or Dunedin) there are heaps of organisations you can contact. Together We Make a Nation has four community pages: on the Get Involved and Champions page there are a number of ways that you can support former refugees. If people want to support the increase in the quota they can look at what champions like Murdoch Stephens (Doing Our Bit: Double The Quota) are doing.

What would you hope New Zealanders will take away from these women’s stories?

Sandra: Our message is that former refugee women are so resilient and strong. They are brave and resourceful and have so much to offer our communities. A direct contrast to the inaccuracies being portrayed in the international media

Click here to watch Together We Make a Nation, and here to show your support on Facebook

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