As I sat across from Aliah, trying my utmost to paint the perfect butterfly across her sweet, six-year-old face, the ‘refugee crisis’ assumed human form and peered back at me with the cheekiest brown eyes. After scrolling through the top ‘face paint butterflies’ Google Images had to offer, she picked a design that was certainly going to put my two-dollar-shop paints (and whatever artistic flair I possess) to the test.

As I painted, Aliah quizzed me on the particulars of the party she had found herself at. “Who exactly is this party for?” “Who was invited?” And more importantly, “Who wasn’t invited?” When I told her that it was a Christmas party for anyone who wanted to come, she was more than a little suspicious, but shrugged it off when she was distracted by the artwork blossoming across her cheeks. Once I had applied the finishing touches, she darted out into the crowd—joining the 120 former refugee mums and kids who were eating, dancing, and having a fantastic time at the Refugees as Survivors (RAS) community centre in Auckland. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are a staggering  65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide—among them, nearly 21.3 million refugees. According to official figures from 2015, just 107,100 of these people had been settled into new countries. Aliah is one of them, and although she and her family are grateful to be safe, their present reality is one of upheaval. How does Aotearoa New Zealand even begin to replace the home they knew, and  cherish in memory? Having been torn from friendships, businesses, schools, family, and all the small, everyday familiarities that add up to home—what helps make it possible to start over as a new  New Zealander?

butterfly face paint girl refugee
In New Zealand our encounters with the ‘refugee crisis’ often take place in the abstract.

Earlier in the evening, my friend Jin and I had been chatting to Zeya, a young woman from Myanmar who had very recently arrived in Auckland with one of her younger brothers. The rest of her family—all six of them—hadn’t made it. Unlike some of the other ladies at the Christmas party, Zeya didn’t know anyone except her Red Cross volunteer who had dropped her off. She was very shy, spoke little English, and was clearly uneasy about the prospect of an evening spent with strangers. But as the evening unfolded, and she was embraced by those present, it was extraordinary to watch her relax and allow herself to be welcomed. Being a foreigner myself, I have felt (and continue to feel) the pain of being separated from my family, my friends, and my country. Comparing my freely chosen immigration to the experience of a refugee would of course be ridiculous, but I do know something of the painful, uncomfortable, and vulnerable experience of creating a new home in a foreign land. Over the last five years, feelings of fracture and displacement have slowly been replaced by a genuine sense of belonging—not as a result of the passing of time, but because of the beautiful people who opened their homes and their hearts to me.

While I am learning to live in the tension of simultaneous grief and joy, I have the luxury of being able to board a plane and head back to my home country if I need to. If my family needs me, I can get to them. If I need them, they can get to me. But, for those arriving in New Zealand as refugees, there is no going back. There is only here. Now. A new street, strange sounds and sights, unfamiliar neighbourhoods and grocery stores, new languages and customs, different ways of learning and being and doing. And then there’s us. We’re here too, and even though we’re part of the unfamiliar landscape, we don’t have to stay that way for long. I’m not sure whether it’s my own experience of being a foreigner, or simply the sheer magnitude of the problem, but when it comes to the refugee crisis, I have felt particularly drawn to ‘do something.’ Eight months before hanging out with Aliah at the RAS Christmas dinner, this desire, with its accompanying question—“What on earth can I do?”—had led to an extraordinary conversation with some close friends. We came to the conclusion that ‘doing something’ was far less daunting if we did it together, and it probably needed to begin with one small, achievable step—a phone call to Red Cross NZ. We wanted to find out how they provide for refugee families arriving in New Zealand, and how we might get involved.

I think about welcoming our new neighbours into this land, and into our lives. How can we continually reduce the space between us?

As it turned out, they were more than happy to let us know what they were already doing, where they saw the gaps, and how we could help. Our local church was enthusiastic to lend support too, and without further ado, St Paul’s Love Your New Neighbour (SPLYNN) was born, and it has been humbling to watch this fledging ‘something’ take flight. So far, this has looked like teaming up with Red Cross NZ and RAS in Auckland—supporting the amazing work they are already doing in the city, and lending some people-power and ideas where needed. Red Cross NZ is the primary provider of Refugee Resettlement Services in New Zealand, and every refugee who enters the country spends their first six weeks at the Red Cross Mangere Resettlement Centre in Auckland. RAS on the other hand, is a non-profit, set up to deliver mental health services to former refugees, providing ongoing support to individuals and families as they settle in.

While some of our support (as SPLYNN) involves helping resolve some very practical challenges, like the lack of quality household items, it is clear that what our new neighbours need most is the same thing we all so desperately need: community. It feels like the word ‘community’ is fast on its way to the buzzword hall of fame. But regardless of how many of our conversations are littered with it, our need for community sits at the heart of what it means to be a human being. The messy, uncomfortable, wonderful reality of living among people who know us and still love us, is a sometimes difficult but truly good reality. Not only do we need healthy relationships in order to function, we need them to help us to flourish too. Our brains, our bodies, and our souls are wired for connection, and we may never be more in need of human connection than when everything of relational, geographical, and material value has been stripped away from us.

Recently, our team from work spent some time at a marae up North. Matua Bernard, who had generously welcomed us onto his whānau’s marae and into his home, explained a pōwhiri as a process of “reducing the space” between people. He went on to say that when we first saw each other, we were strangers, but through the process of exchanging greetings, we had begun to establish a relationship. Over the next three days, as we spent time together, the space between us was further reduced. I love this idea, and it is one I keep coming back to as I think about welcoming our new neighbours to this land, and into our lives. How can we continually reduce the space between us?

town square home refugee
ruins refugee sky broken
boats full of refugees
What helps make it possible to start over as a New Zealander?

In our conversations with Red Cross and RAS, the resounding challenge they’ve put to us is exactly that: how can we help former refugees not only feel safe, but feel like they belong? This question is an ongoing one—on a personal level, as well as for SPLYNN—but we have begun by getting behind a couple of mentoring and friendship initiatives that we hope will continue to expand and inspire genuine relationships beyond the borders of an organised programme. We hope they will help reduce the space and blur the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Thinking about the ‘refugee crisis’ in conjunction with something as seemingly pedestrian as ‘building relationships and community’ is not easy. In fact, it can be overwhelming and numbing, and not very helpful. I think the problem is that in New Zealand our encounters with the crisis often take place in the abstract—in conversations about the latest news headlines, statistics, politics, and quotas. I think these conversations are critically important as we consider what it means for New Zealand to be a place of asylum, but they can’t stop there.

Our need for community sits at the heart of what it means to be a human being.

As we debate New Zealand’s policies regarding quota regulations, let’s also walk down the road and welcome the new family who has just moved in. Our current yearly quota of 750 seems a painfully dismal number in light of the need, but as we seek to shift this and expand our resources (and our hearts) to accommodate more people, we have the opportunity to embrace our new neighbours. For now, perhaps we can see the smaller number of people settling in New Zealand as a chance to truly engage. With a population of over 4 million, there are more than enough of us to welcome 750 people into our neighbourhoods each year.

When Red Cross NZ told us that only between 25 and 40 individuals are settled in our area each year, the overwhelming sense of helplessness I had felt before, dissipated as I thought, “Wow, we can really help!” Yes, on a global scale the need is unimaginable, but for those of us who are here, in New Zealand, wanting to make a difference, we can. And it can be as simple as encountering someone and saying, “Hi, I’m so glad you’re here.”


Michelle Neethling

Michelle manages the Creative and Development Team at Parenting Place—a non-profit with a heart for whānau. After completing an MA in English literature, she spent a couple of years in the communications team at Laidlaw College, and then joined Parenting Place in 2015. Michelle is a South African who has come to deeply love Aotearoa and its people. She’s married to Nico, addicted to popcorn, and is excited to be learning te reo Māori alongside her colleagues this year.