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Hutt City mayor rolls out the welcome mat for refugees

Dec 10th, 2012 | By | Category: Featured Article, Front Page Layout

“WE want you here” was  Hutt City Mayor Ray Wallace’s message to refugees while admitting that not all his councillors may feel that way.

Mr Wallace was addressing a public meeting on refugee safety in Naenae (pictured above).

“We are here and we are here to help. [Refugees] are welcome and we want them here, but it would be fair to say not all members of the council share my view.”

However, he said, they are in a very small minority.

Mr Wallace joked that his passion for welcoming refugees was probably fuelled by the fact that he had emigrated from Scotland as a child.

He says that missing Scotland is nothing compared with refugees who leave behind families and are often plagued by terrible memories which can lead to mental health problems.

“Some come from such a terrible background; from a very tough and, in many cases, a dangerous life, to a new life. There is that issue of settling into a community.”

Mr Wallace says New Zealanders could do a better job at understanding the difficulties refugees face, and with community meetings comes more understanding.

“Because a lot of refugees come without their families, depression is a really big issue. So we need to let them know that we are here for them and there are many health services they can access.

“We do have a large refugee community, so it’s good to raise awareness throughout the wider community, as we all have to live together.”

Refugee meetings give an opportunity for agencies to inform refugees and Nadine Warbrick (right) of Community Law has seen the inexperience of people new to the country exploited.

“Sometimes we see tenancy issues and simple things like car accidents. Refugees don’t realise that, if an accident isn’t their fault, they don’t have to pay.”

Something that may seem like common sense to New Zealanders can present big problems to refugees, and can land them in trouble with the law, says Ms Warbrick.

“Sometimes it’s really difficult to go to another country when you don’t know what the law is and you don’t know where to go to get help.”

Social worker Francis Ogwaro (left) MC’d the meeting, which featured speeches and musical performances from refugees.

Mr Ogwaro, a refugee from Uganda, says New Zealand has been a good for him, but he counts himself lucky.

“Employment and language are huge problems, I’m lucky because I speak English, but I still find it hard to find the right job.

He wants to see meetings like the one in Naenae supported by councils all over the Wellington region.

“The more we as a society can accept [refugees], the more help they can get.”

Memories of torture and threats of violence still haunt him and he says depression can take hold of refugees preventing them from reaching out for help.

“I could spend all day telling you what was going on in Uganda that made me leave, and so could many refugees here in New Zealand.

“My children are still back in Africa because immigration didn’t want them to come so I have to send them money for sickness, education and anything they need.”

Looking to help refugees is Lynette Singh from Refugee Services.

Refugee Services is tasked with helping refugees get a head start. She says that once language barriers are broken, relationships can develop.

“They feel isolated, for many people when they come here, they know nobody else,” says Mrs Singh.

Refugee Services sends nurses out to households to educate refugees in their own language about the New Zealand system and what they are entitled to. Similarly teachers go out to households to help the family with learning English.

Ho Chi Lan (right) came from Myanmar under the most recent intake of refugees and he was one of the lucky few able to bring his whole family.

“I came here after the refugee camp and life is so much better. My family are safe and that’s the most important thing.”

He loves New Zealand and describes it as the best country in the world.

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