Refugees at a train terminal in the Greek village of Idomeni, waiting to cross the border into FYR Macedonia on Sept 6, 2015. (Photo by Thomas Campean /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Refugees at a train terminal in the Greek village of Idomeni, waiting to cross the border into FYR Macedonia on Sept 6, 2015. (Photo by Thomas Campean /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of doing aid work in distant Africa. Feed the starving. Heal the sick. Save the world. Now the world seems a far smaller and infinitely more troubled place.

This week, Te Karere cited a report that 44 percent of New Zealanders objected to increasing the annual refugee quota by 250 over the next three years — and that most of the critics were Māori. Rangi McLean (Manurewa Marae) was one of those interviewed. The inference was that everything comes down to a question of priorities.

Rangi told Te Karere that if we were opening up our marae to refugees “then we should be doing it for our own people living on the streets and those struggling to find homes.”

I wasn’t feeling the love from Rangi for Syrian tangata whenua. That was surprising given his record of energy and generosity. So I rang him.

What was left out of the news item, says Rangi, was that he has no problem with the extra 250 refugees a year. And it wasn’t a case of welcoming either refugees or local homeless. Rangi reckons New Zealand, like his marae, are able to do both.

His marae has an ongoing relationship with Iraqi refugees in that community. It supports them and helps educate Iraqis about Māori values and history. As far as Rangi is concerned, it all boils down to manaakitanga. And he’s confident other marae in Tamaki feel the same way.

Not that you’d get that from the news item.

New Zealand accepts 750 refugees each year. Refugees receive automatic residency and aid from Housing New Zealand. And they get help to settle here from other organisations such as the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, Auckland Regional Migrant Services Charitable Trust (ARMS), and the New Zealand Red Cross. All refugees go through a six-week resettlement programme that deals with housing, health services, benefits and finding jobs.

If the report on Te Karere is true, some of our locals are (truly) revolting. Pākehā who moan about being “taken over” by foreigners must have amnesia. They have benefited from their own ancestors “taking over” Aotearoa.

And here’s a question for Māori who are indifferent to the nearly 400,000 humans who crossed the sea to Europe this year alone — 70 percent of them from Syria.

If extra refugees don’t come to New Zealand, what difference will it make to homeless here? It’s not an automatic benefit for those New Zealanders who are in need. But there are encouraging signs — and encouraging efforts — that we’re not as self-centred as John Key was sounding the other day.

For instance, years ago, my son (Kimiora) was at King’s College where the chaplain, Warner Wilder, ran a wonderful community services programme. Students spent time alongside adults with brain injuries, at a Women’s Refuge and in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

The Kid was always a persuasive boy. He talked me into dragging my band and PA gear to King’s to perform for a gathering of refugees. I remember a couple of the refugee youngsters cried when Scotty Morrison did his haka. Well, he is a bit scary. It was their first-ever exposure to Māori and our first exposure to refugees. But not our last. Before we knew it, the Kid had roped Amiria Reriti, my sister Trina and me into visiting the Mangere Centre.

It’s an old army barracks and looks like it. Our main contact was Noor, a lovely man of Indian descent. Noor was only a child when Uganda was under the rule of “President for Life” Dada Idi Amin. He was the increasingly psychotic dictator who would say things like: “Sometimes people mistake the way I talk for what I am thinking.”

Neither his thinking nor his talking gave Asian citizens any comfort.

Like most refugees, Noor said, his family had been relatively well-off. They didn’t want for anything. But, as the president’s thinking became more erratic and his behaviour more brutal, citizens of Indian descent were in more and more danger. Big Dada had a big plan to expel all Asians.

At the last minute, Noor’s family walked out of their beautiful home taking next to nothing with them. They were one of the last Indian families to flee. They didn’t want to leave but had no choice. And that’s why Noor, like others at the Centre, was passionate about the refugees. He even created a little garden for them.

Kimiora and his mates were on a mission, too.

First they wanted toys for the little ones at the Centre. After a shout-out on Facebook, I drove across Auckland to collect stuffed toys, footballs and bikes. Then the Kid came up with the idea that those seeking political asylum needed a distraction because it’s a long wait for the decision about whether you can stay in New Zealand or not.

The Kid reckoned a gym might do the trick. Next minute, I’m hitting up a boxing coach for boxing gloves and a punching bag — and then picking up dumb-bells from Les Mills. After that, there was the drive for household goods and our garage was transformed into a drop-off centre for used furniture.

I started to feel less like a musician and more like a courier service.

Amiria, Trina and I dragged our PA gear, guitar and ukulele to the Refugee Centre three times a year. We’d do that the night before each intake was to move on to their new towns. (I never understood why Somalis were sent to Christchurch. Noor explained it was because other Somalis lived there. I wondered why someone higher up the food chain didn’t say: “OK, stop the bus — how about we send the Africans up to somewhere much warmer? Like Kerikeri?” But, what would I know?)

Anyway, we wanted to welcome refugees and help each intake understand a little about the indigenous people of Aotearoa and our values. I figured they might be able to relate to our culture and that could be some small comfort so far from home.

After a mihi, we’d sing a few songs to explain the Māori worldview and how we are tribal (like Afghanis), love music (like Colombians) and believe in Papatuanuku (like many Africans). We’d invite each country to perform an item and after the initial shyness, it would turn into a real celebration. It was an expression of their rangatiratanga and a link to their turangawaewae.

I remember one young boy from the Sudan reducing Noor (who knew the boy’s story) to tears with his mournful lament. I recall the Colombians bursting with joy as they threw themselves into an infectious salsa — and young men from Iraq and Afghanistan testing out their rapping, while elderly women giggled shyly behind their hands and long scarves.

The ones from Myanmar had their own karaoke tracks. I was most surprised to see refugees from Bhutan, a country I long dreamed of visiting and for whom GDP was defined by “happiness” — which wasn’t easy, so I learned, if you were from certain iwi.

Before long, we had our friends accompanying us. Adele (South Africa) and Kay (who’d lived in Libya a while) zeroed in on the Africans. Much to the delight of the Colombians, Dana (Mexico) was fluent in Spanish. Katarina and Reriti, two of my nieces, taught the poi, while their mums and I fought over the seriously cute babies.

Once we were asked to distribute gifts for the kids. We asked them to step forward to make sure that each of them got a gift. Not a wise move. We were mobbed. Kids were trampled. We were shaken. Noor recalled a refugee camp where he’d been upset, moved to tears, in fact, to see helpers toss food to desperate crowds from the back of a moving truck. It was the lack of humanity that got to him. They said there was no other safe way to distribute it.

We hosted a (halal) hangi for the political asylum seekers at Kay’s spectacular beach property. We figured a happy gathering might break the monotony. A dozen males piled out of the van. They greeted us politely. I was suddenly aware of how loud, colourful and boisterous we Māori, Pākehā and Samoan must appear to them. But, as the day went on, our visitors relaxed.

I asked a quiet, fine-featured man from the Middle East about his profession.

“I’m a jeweller,” he said. He was also a martial arts champion, which had drawn the attention of the Hezbollah leadership. They wanted him to train their soldiers. He high-tailed it out of his country and landed in jail here. I remember him being mystified that inmates here would bother fighting over a pair of Nikes.

By the end of the day, our manuhiri were laughing and dancing together. Noor had to drag them out, especially as a couple of younger ones snuck a beer for the first time. They all left grinning from ear to ear, way different from how they arrived. Noor said it was because they couldn’t believe strangers might want to give something without expecting a return.

After two years of welcoming the new refugees, Trina relocated to Rotorua and I moved to Muriwai Beach. Our visits to the Refugee Centre stopped. When I last heard from Noor, he was heading to Kenyan refugee camps to collect families bound for New Zealand.

My friend Sol is German and Hungarian. After World War II, eight million refugees were moving all over Europe. New countries were formed and it was suggested that former citizens should return to apply for citizenship and get a new passport. There wasn’t a rush on Hungary or Romania, unless you were a dedicated communist. Those who didn’t return were stripped of their citizenship. They were given an ID from the country where they were living which said “stateless refugee”. Like Sol’s dad. The UN helped sort things out in the 1950s. Now Hungary is building walls.

When our band played in Warsaw in 2013, we met a young Polish scholar who’d written a book about the 734 Polish children adopted by New Zealand as WWII refugees. Some parents, unable to leave Russia in 1942, faced the terrible choice of keeping their children with them or sending them away. How could you or I handle that?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to leave your home, relatives, job and country, let alone drag young children and babies into the unknown. What desperation there must be for families to flee from Syria to ISIS-infested Iraq.

Up steps Winston Peters to suggest that, from any Syrian families arriving here, all the men should be returned to Syria to defend their country.

Right.

But, fight on which side? And why? What if you’re a jeweller or lawyer or musician who hasn’t had a punch-up since your school days? Where will you go to pick up military skills and weapons? This week a 17-year-old boy arrived at the Munich train station carrying a two-year-old he found walking alone from Hungary. Should the teenager be forced back?

Syrians are not migrants. They’re refugees.

Up steps a lecturer in human geography from Victoria University. He’s Alan Gamlen. And he argues that New Zealand should act “because it has helped create a world in which there are more refugees than ever before.”

He says our involvement in Western military interventions in North Africa and the Middle East stretches much further back than the invasion of Iraq. He says it goes “right back into the era of the British Empire, whose post-World War I officials drew the arbitrary borders that ISIS is now fighting to erase. We are part of the problem and we have a moral duty to help to fix it.”

Amen.

PS

I asked my panel of junior philosophers — Johnny (6), Manawanui (7), and Lulu (9) — to consider how they would cope if they had to escape from Auckland by boat because of a war or a huge volcanic eruption. If they had to choose between their pet dog and a total stranger, (knowing the one left behind would surely die) what would they do?

They racked their little brains.

“Ooh, no!” they moaned. “It’s so hard.”

“You have to make a choice, Lulu,” I insisted, after she went off on a tangent.

“Don’t interrupt,” she said sternly. “I’m thinking. Because I know there’s a way to look after both.”

She was going to figure it out.

 

© e-tangata, 2015

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