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Friday, 22 March 2019 11:43 am

Escaping trauma, healing from the past in Wellington

Former refugee Yibeth Morales Ayala has fled Colombia and faced persecution in Ecuador before finding her footing in New Zealand.

The Labour government has promised to raise the refugee quota. But how will it work in practice? And what is needed to make it work? And who are these individuals at play and what are their stories? THOMAS CROSKERY talks to those at the forefront of the issue.

Yibeth Morales Ayala was only three when she fled Colombia with her family to build a life elsewhere.

The former refugee, now aged 18, was born in a small village near the Ecuadorian border in 1999.

It was a time when Colombian paramilitaries were becoming increasingly violent, and Yibeths’ grandparents were among their victims.

“They came and they tortured my grandmother. The next day we saw her body outside, and they just kind of left it there,” she says. Her grandfather went missing three weeks later, then they came for her, her parents and siblings.

“It just felt like they were targeting our whole family.

“They came, knocking on the door saying you have five minutes to leave, or we’ll kill you. We’ll kill you all.”

Fifteen years later she willingly retells her story in painstaking detail, hoping it will make a difference in her adopted country of New Zealand.

Yibeth has achieved prominence for her work giving back to her community, and trying to improve the system that took her and her family into New Zealand four years ago.

The refugee intake system is not perfect, Yibeth says. There are often stereotypes which hamper efforts to take in more people.

“New Zealand has so much space, and so much that they could give to those people, all the people that are like me. Everybody deserves to have a nice life, everybody deserves a good life and to have a future and fulfill dreams.”

Not content to watch from the sidelines, the St Catherine’s College student has actively involved herself in the cause of improving the refugee intake system.

She has had the refugee quota in her sights for a while now, giving an impassioned speech at World Refugee Day last year.

In it, she urged the UN Refugee Agency, then-Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse and other Government officials to raise the quota.

Morales addresses the World Refugee Day event at Parliament, hosted by the New Zealand Red Cross, June 2017. (PHOTO: Supplied).

Last year’s General Election was a victory for her cause, as Labour, which promised to raise the quota during the election campaign, was voted into power.

Consequently, more refugees will call New Zealand home from this year, when the new quota level of 1000 takes effect.

Labour has promised to raise the quota to 1500 over three years, and provide the funding to manage the refugee resettlement.

This would mark the first significant quota increase since the 1980s, and New Zealand would take in more of the displaced peoples from many nations, including displaced Colombians fleeing violence in their homeland.

Fifty-four Colombian nationals arrived in New Zealand between July and November, 2017, fleeing the violence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, (known as Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo in Spanish).

Many displaced Colombians also flee to neighbouring Ecuador, as Yibeth and her family did initially.

They lived in the capital of Quito for 11 years without much help or support, and Yibeth remembers those years as difficult times.

“My parents had to work all day in a country where they are paid less than they should, and people treat them like slaves.”

They also had to take care of Yibeths’ youngest sister, which required the older daughter to be largely self-sufficient.

“I was at school, but I had to come home to nobody. It was only me by myself, doing my own food, since I was six years old. If I wanted to go out, I was by myself in the streets, and, you know, it’s dangerous there. I had to grow up learning that I, you know, I had to protect myself, and carry a knife under my sleeve, and all of those things. It’s just traumatising.

There was a lot of bullying at school, even by teachers and principals. It taught her to be tough, but also somewhat closed off, she admits.

The opportunity to come to a first-world country like New Zealand changed her life.

‘We’d never had bedrooms or beds’

After arriving, she and her family spent six weeks in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre before moving to Wellington and getting their own house.

“When we got there, we were just like: we can’t believe we’re going to have a house, you know. We’re going to live somewhere stable, that we can call our place, our house, our home.

“Me and my little sister just ran inside, we looked at our bedrooms, we’d never had bedrooms or beds, we had mattresses on the floor but not beds or stuff for ourselves.”

She still remembers the first time she, her parents and her younger sister all sat around a table together as a family in Wellington. It was the first time they had all sat at the table together to eat dinner.

“It was really hard, because I practically grew up by myself and lived by myself. It was going to be the first time I was going to live with my parents and have parents to tell me what to do, to teach me.”

But it was not all happiness.

Leaving behind the traumas of life in Latin America proved difficult, and the scars that time in her life inflicted on her proved difficult to heal.

“It’s really hard for people like us, refugees who come fleeing a country from violence, you know, and from people. It’s really hard to adjust to a place that is totally different.”

In her first year in New Zealand after arriving in 2014 she found it hard to adjust and learn English, and she did not make many friends, largely sticking to Wellington’s Colombian community.

However, she eventually realised the need to go out, be more extroverted, and learn English.

New Zealand, she says, received her and her family “in a really nice way”.

“We just feel welcome and like, we can be part of this country. We can go and fulfill our dreams and also try to give back into the country what they have given us.”

Yibeth is in her final year at St Catherine’s College in Kilbirnie, and is an active participant in extracurricular activities.

Schools investing in refugee support

Deputy principal Mandy Page says all students, including those of a refugee background, are expected to participate in extracurricular activities.

“It helps them form new friendships, and experience new things, learn new skills, and just adds to their whole educational experience.

“Particularly for refugee students, we like them to join a sports group, or another group to help them make friends.”

Page says there are dedicated staff to look after refugee students, and when any new student starts at school a buddy is organised for them to look after and support them.

“They’ll take them to class or pick them up after class, maybe catch the bus with them or walk down to the bus stop and get them on the right bus, and look after them at lunch time, that sort of thing.”

“We have a strong pastoral system for refugee and new students.”

Outside school, Yibeth has a show on Wellington Access Radio, and is an active member of the New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council, where she has underlined the need for change to the refugee intake system.

Gayaal Iddamalgoda, FIRST Union’s legal organiser and a leader of the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign.

Another calling for change is Gayaal Iddamalgoda, legal organiser at FIRST Union and a member of the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign.

Iddamalgoda agrees the quota must be expanded, favouring a more open and pragmatic refugee policy.

“I think we need to actually not think so much in terms of rigid quotas, but actually think in terms of humanitarian need, and the rights of people to seek refuge wherever they need to.”

Iddamalgoda also advocates more programs to help asylum seekers who arrive in New Zealand outside of the quota.

“I think quota refugees are entitled to a bit more, but asylum seekers who come outside of the quota don’t get that much.”

Groups such as his need more institutional support, as they largely rely on public goodwill.

Refugees bear the brunt of this lack of funding and support, being among the most powerless in society.

“It’s actually something that affects all working class New Zealanders, the lack of public funding for public goods.”

However, he is hopeful of more changes under the Labour-led government, but there is still a tendency to blame migrants and refugees for a lack of housing supply, high house prices, and for the pressure on infrastructure and public services.

“It isn’t, in fact, migrants or refugees who are to blame for that, they’re not a drain on the system, it’s in fact an unwillingness on the part of the state, for many decades now, since the eighties, to invest in these public resources.

“The Labour government needs to take a strong stance against scapegoating minorities and scapegoating migrants and refugees in particular.

“They need to deliver some of the things they promised, and it will be positive if it is delivered, and migrants and refugees along with the rest of New Zealand will benefit from that.”

‘To arrive as a refugee is not to remain a refugee’

Refugees also face linguistic barriers and discrimination, and difficulty finding work and accessing public services, says ChangeMakers Refugee Forum spokesperson Ellie Clayton.

Clayton says her organisation is approached by those with refugee backgrounds about issues vital for them to make the most of New Zealand life.

“This includes issues like housing, family reunification and benefits.”

“To arrive as a refugee is not to remain a refugee”, Clayton says.

“ChangeMakers Refugee Forum want to start changing the public narrative.

“Former refugees in New Zealand go on to make a vital contribution to the social and economic fabric of our nation. They work, pay taxes, volunteer, and are active members of society.”

ChangeMakers Refugee Forum chair Ibrahim Omer. (PHOTO: Supplied).

ChangeMakers Forum chair Ibrahim Omer agrees.

“Our work is not just theory or policy or research or statistics, Omer says.

“For those of us working daily with refugee background communities, we know people as individuals, with real needs, hopes and dreams for themselves and their families.”

Yibeth puts it this way: “Everybody deserves to have dreams”, she says.

“In Latin America, whatever you dream of, you can’t get it. You work for a day-to-day basis.

“I feel like here in New Zealand, we have so many opportunities. We are all different, we come from different backgrounds, we all have different problems, issues and a different life from each other.

“We should all appreciate each other and try to understand other people’s situation.”

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