Emeli Sione’s book, A New Dawn, published last month, recounts her family’s experience of the Dawn Raids, and the impact it’s had on three generations of her family. Here, she talks to Teuila about what happened, and why she wanted to share her family’s story.
I was three years old when we moved to New Zealand in 1978. My dad’s parents, Nafetalei and Emeli Aholelei, had moved from Tonga before us. My younger brother Folau was still a baby, and my four younger siblings weren’t born yet.
It was hard because none of the adults knew a lot of English. Out of the four of them, Mum (who’s Niuean) probably knew the most.
Our first house in Auckland was on Castle Street in Grey Lynn. Those were the days when Grey Lynn and Ponsonby were full of Pacific families. We had a police officer and his family living next door, and there was also a Pālagi lady called Elizabeth Radford up the road.
She knocked on the door one day to introduce herself — and she offered to help with us kids. She and Mum became good friends.
Elizabeth used to take my siblings and me on little trips to places like the zoo. She even gave me my first book. I also did little jobs for her, like gardening, and I’d get paid about $8 each time, which was a lot of money back then. For our family, it bought essentials like bread, butter and milk.
Like many other immigrant families, my parents started their new lives here feeling hopeful and thinking God had truly blessed them. We lived with my grandparents, and Mum worked in a laundromat and looked after us kids while Dad worked in a hotel in town. We didn’t have much money but they believed in the promise of the land of milk and honey.
But after our family was raided and my grandparents were sent back to Tonga, that dream was shattered. Our family felt broken and lost.
A New Dawn talks about what happened to my family. I was only five when it happened, but I remember the police banging on the door and my parents telling my grandparents and me to hide in the wardrobe in their room. I remember crying and trying my best to keep quiet. It was so hard and I was so scared.
And I remember the wardrobe door opening, and my grandparents being handcuffed and led out by the police. I didn’t see them again for years.
I wonder if people can imagine how it feels to be treated like that. How humiliated and degraded you feel. How it affects your sense of worth and belonging.
That experience changed our family. It scarred us. Grandpa was the head of our household and the glue in our family. He was a minister, and he was kind and loving but also stern. He kept everything in our family in order. He and Dad were really close. And, as the eldest of my parents children, I was also raised by them.
After my grandparents were deported, Dad really struggled. He became an angry man, and my parents ended up separating when I was 10 and then divorcing. It took years for me to understand the full impact of that night — and of the Dawn Raids on Pacific families like ours.
When Dad moved out, Mum essentially became a single parent, raising six kids on the benefit. I was helping out with the money from my neighbourhood jobs, but there were weeks when we simply didn’t have enough food or couldn’t pay the power bill. While we made it work and there was lots of love in our home, it was a very different life to what we had with our grandparents.
Eventually, Grandpa and Grandma returned to New Zealand. After being sent back to Tonga, they went to live in Niue. My grandmother’s father was Niuean, so she and Grandpa gained New Zealand citizenship while they were in Niue.
Bringing A New Dawn together has been about understanding my family’s story and our place in New Zealand. I’ve pulled together the different threads in our lives, and taken a hard look at how it’s affected us. And that hasn’t been an easy process.
As a teenager, and in my early 20s, I was so angry. I was an angry young Pacific person. I was angry at how we were treated by society. I was angry at my father for leaving us. I was angry at what my mum went through looking after six kids on her own. I was angry at the people who called me racist names and how they made me feel as a Pasifika woman.
I’d become so angry about being Pacific in New Zealand that at times it was hard to see reason and think clearly.
My husband George asked me what was going on not long after we started going out. “Why do you have such a big chip on your shoulder? Why are you angry?”
I had to look at where it came from, and a lot of it started with what happened to my grandparents and our family. There was also the racist name-calling at school, from some of the kids and even a few teachers. Even as an adult, I’d get it. It all added to that feeling of never belonging. That it wasn’t okay to be me.
My siblings and I belong to that generation of Pacific children who lost their language and culture. It’s not Mum and Dad’s fault. They were so focused on surviving in a foreign place, and getting through what happened to my grandparents. I just don’t think any of us really thought about language and culture maintenance at the time.
Until recently, Mum and Dad never really talked about the Dawn Raids era. Whenever I asked about it, they’d say: “Oh, it just happened. It’s what happened at that time.” There was so much anti-Pacific racism back then, and we were treated so badly — and I think revisiting that brings back all the hurt and trauma.
I only ever heard it mentioned once by my grandparents before they died. We were talking and, for some reason, the New Zealand government came up. I just remember Grandpa saying: “I hate the New Zealand government. I hate them. I hate what they did to me and your grandmother.” He was so angry, and had tears in his eyes. Grandma just sat quietly.
After I graduated from Auckland University with a master’s in education, my first job was in Pasifika learning resources, as an editor and project manager. I’ve worked in publishing since then, focusing on educational resources. But I’ve always wanted more information and books about the Dawn Raids era.
I wanted something that anyone could pick up, that explained the history of anti-Pacific racism in New Zealand. I also wanted to tell my family’s story. I think that was when the first real draft of A New Dawn came together. I pulled together what I remembered from the night we were raided, and added to it over time.
When the apology happened, I watched it and cried. I thought about my grandparents and wished they were around to hear it. I don’t know if they would’ve forgiven what happened, but at least they would have heard it and been acknowledged.
I thought about everything we’d been through, and how it was important to show my own children — Alei, Brooke and Jackson — where we’ve come from. I wanted to honour my grandparents and parents, and make sure there was a record of what happened beyond us.
The other reason was finding out at the end of last year that my cancer had come back and that it was here to stay. So, I knew it was the right time to tell our story.
In A New Dawn, there’s a section on the Polynesian Panthers and how they’ve fought anti-Pacific racism in New Zealand for 50 years. It’s a way of including their legacy, and an acknowledgment and fakamālō of their work. At the end, there’s a copy of the apology statement from the New Zealand Government from last year.
Including it is a form of accountability. It’s about giving context to everyone who reads it, so they can say: “Hey, Government. You’ve said these words and we’ve all seen it. This is what you’ve promised. So what are you doing to keep that?”
I think that’s particularly important for my children and their generation. I’d also never told my children what happened, and they each had a different reaction to A New Dawn.
Alei, who’s 13, was angry. When it came out, she took it to school and shared it with her English class. Brooke, 11, said to me: “I’m so angry at those people and the way that they treated you.” Her twin brother Jackson read it and then gave me a hug and said: “Are you all right, Mum? I read your book, and I’m really sad and I cried. I feel sorry for you.”
We talked about it, and I told him I was okay and wanted him to know what happened when I was young.
For my parents and siblings, A New Dawn has been a way to look at the past and see how far we’ve come. The book is an achievement for all of us. It’s for all the families like ours who came to the land of milk and honey, and found we weren’t welcome. It’s also so our children and future generations of Pasifika understand the history of anti-Pacific racism in New Zealand.
For me, and for others who experienced the Dawn Raids, telling our stories is a way to find healing and peace. We can never forget, but we can look towards a new dawn where there is forgiveness and hope.
Emeli Sione lives in Wellington with her husband George and their children. She grew up in Grey Lynn, where her extended family still live 40 years later.
A New Dawn is published by Mila’s Books, an independent Pacific publisher. Dahlia Malaeulu is the editor and publisher. Darcy Solia is the book’s illustrator, and Liz Tui-Morris is the graphic designer. The book is available here.
As told to Teuila Fuatai, and made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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