One story told at the begining of the hui was about a man on the plane from Wellington to Auckland who, on finding out about the subject of the hui, made a comment along the lines of “send them back where they came from.”
Blood-boiling as this may be, in a peculiar twist this aeroplane stranger unexpectedly and, probably to his chagrin, provided me with a purpose for the weekend. How do we engage with this view? How do we provide an alternative narrative on refugees to the one that saturates our media daily, laced with “looking after our own first”, “culture-clash,” and the ever present dash of “terrorism.”
Changing the perspective of the aeroplane stranger became the focus of the hui for me, and a thread that wound its way through every session of the weekend.
The hui enabled me to draw links between my understanding of human identity, and how this overlays and subsequently distorts our perception of refugees. The aeroplane stranger was able to make the comment he did because he feels no connection to a person who is a refugee; however, this is not a distance particular to the situation of refugees only.
Humans categorise to make sense of the world, and the way we view the rest of humankind is no exception. We “other” people who are unfamiliar to ourselves and the world around us, and it is this “otherness” of refugees that erodes our ability to form connections, and to feel compassion.
When society condones and enhances this otherness, through news outlets, through racial bias in our refugee policy, through our interactions with “others”, the norm created is closure and exclusion rather than the welcome that refugees arriving in New Zealand are entitled to and deserve. This links to identity in a wider sense, which is something I already understand to be a core focus of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
As soon as a refugee arrives in New Zealand, they are a legally a New Zealand citizen, as much as I am, but does their reality, and does our society’s perception of them reflect this? What makes a New Zealander?
If it is your ability to sing Tutira Mai Nga Iwi with gusto and passion, I was completely surpassed by the children at the Mangere resettlement centre who had been in New Zealand for less than two weeks. If it is contribution to the community, I couldn’t hold a candle to some of the speakers who came to New Zealand as children and as refugees, and who have gone on to be some of the most incredible people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Part of changing the narrative towards refugees arriving in New Zealand is changing our own perception of who we are as New Zealanders; of embracing the other and crossing the imaginary divide between “them” and “us.”
It became clear throughout the weekend that our legal and political structures around refugees entrenches this “otherness”. Not only do we take well below what we could, but our system is also coloured by shades of racial bias.
New Zealand (with the recent exception of Syria) will only take refugees from the Middle East or Africa if they have a familial link to New Zealand. This same requirement is not placed on refugees from elsewhere in the world, but with what justification aside from a fear of the “other”?
As one of the speakers at the hui, Dr. Ann Beagehole, put it, “boat people” are not solely the Rohinga stranded in in Bangladesh, nor are they the asylum seekers floating in diplomatic limbo on Manus. They are the Jewish holocaust survivors who came to New Zealand after World War II, and the Vietnamese families fleeing a country turned upside down by war and the Māori iwi who were displaced from their tribal lands and forced into areas of New Zealand they had no connection to by a government with a very white, very colonial vision of New Zealand.
Former refugees are part of our social fabric; they are an integral part of what gives me a sense of pride in New Zealand.
Welcoming refugees can be New Zealand’s new nuclear free; it can become a value woven so deep into the fabric of our national identity that when people ask what it means to be a New Zealand we say tolerance and compassion.
Changing the narrative means challenging the aeroplane stranger, as uncomfortable as that may be, when he retreated into a fear of the other. It means openly supporting refugees’ right to come to New Zealand, and their right to be part of our society when they arrive. It means saying haere mai, welcome, you are part of our New Zealand.