“When you stand with me in my hour of need, you are my kin.” Author unknown
This year 2017 sees me in my 6th consecutive year in a row volunteering my services to New Zealand Red Cross. The Refugee Settlement programme was always huge and demanding. It was extremely important to attend to the needs of our most vulnerable migrants to a new country; to show them our love and care, with cultural respect, sensitivity and dignity and more importantly the humanitarian service on the global stage. What started my love of volunteering stemmed from the deadly Christchurch earthquake killing 185 people in 2011. It happened in our own backyard and I was shaken. I remembered desperately wanting to help with my nursing skills. I did not even have the appropriate Red Cross IMPACT training but I wanted to contribute a little. I organised a couple of big boxes and packed them up with some sanitary supplements with the help of work colleagues who contributed as well. I drove them down to the Wellington Public Library (http://www.wcl.govt.nz) where two awesome guys were driving their van across the Interislander Ferry (http://www.interislander.co.nz). They had put out an SOS to the public through the radio and social media channels to donate and bring food, packages, bakings, sanitary items etc for the people of Christchurch to them so they could transport them across the Cooks Strait. Young legends at heart!
I remembered turning up at the Porirua City’s Citizen Advice Bureau offering my services on a voluntary basis. I didn’t know which organisation I would be of an impact or could make a difference as I was very limited with my skillsets. Two suggestions were offered-firstly that I could potentially work with the NZ Police and be part of the Womens Refuge Volunteer team. The second offer was to under take a training programme and resettle the Refugees in the city of Porirua. I took the latter. It changed my life completely. The rest is history.
The training was intense. I had to make time after my working hours. I was grateful for the preparation. One valuable memory that had stuck with me was an exercise that we engaged in. It was became a conviction. A drive that almost haunted me. We were asked to draw, write, picture, engage the things that we had that made us happy and complete; every single thing that we could think of. List everything down or draw the pictures; even money and family and every little thing that a westerner would consider a necessity. That included a play station for some people! The things that made me complete and happy were my families and friends and of course having a little bit of money to buy a nice dress. It made me reminisce about Vanuatu and the tropical paradise it was to have flowing rivers, the forest and the seas. It was a complete haven for me. Suddenly, everything was taken away from me and torn into pieces in front of my eyes! I became quite emotional at that stage. It struck me.
This is what a refugee person’s world is! Everything is taken away, everything is destroyed. They lose everything. They are forced to leave. They are forced to flee for safety, for their lives, for their families, for their future, for their tomorrow. To survive!
The preparation towards getting my first refugee family in the city of Porirua was a complete challenge. Porirua volunteers were hard to find and there was only a handful of us who were prepared to accept the challenge and run with it. It was the toughest assignment ever on home soil but I believed it prepared me mentally to keep offering my services through the years (until a year or so ago). I remembered utilising social media to network to my friends online to ask for donations for everything a household could ask for. Real estate agents, accountants, nurses, doctors, surgeons, teachers and every friends I reached out to generously gave. It was overwhelming. Basically, Housing New Zealand (HNZ) would give me a house to set up for the family. I had the keys to the house to set up a week prior with no electricity. I asked a few friends to help me out and the help was very much appreciated. Friends gave up their time to fix windows and doors which was very helpful and necessary for the new family’s security. The night before the official arrivals would normally see me finish work at 730pm, and heading over to finish off the furnishings. It was intense. Despite feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, I taught myself to be mentally tough. It was a choice and discipline I had learnt to factor into my schedules. It reminded me of my values; that serving the community was and is still important. That whatever the challenge, I had to be strong, see things through a new lens and take decisive actions. I was determined to finish off on a high note. I would come home after midnights, have a few hours of sleep (sometimes none) and be up again to welcome a new day. The arrivals at the Wellington Airport are always emotional.
I remembered the first arrival of my new family. I drove a single mother with an very young daughter of 5 years old who was suffering from epilepsy and a 7 year old son who loved football. In the car, the mother simply wept. It was so heartbreaking to watch. Yes I was moved by it all. I wept with her too. It was the right thing to do; be silent and to share a tear as well. The following years saw very similar situations where I would transport these refugee women. Those tears must mean a lot reasons-I dared not to ask but I totally understood. I shared the tears with the women too. They became my family. They share my journey and vice versa. It is so tough settling into a new environment. New beginnings are beneficial but the journey through it can be excruciatingly challenging and negative at times.
One valuable insight I will take as a lifelong lesson would be that these refugees have become my family and have made me express my humanitarian side-a quality trait I would have never discovered. I would like to echo Angelina Jolie’s sentiments that refugees have done more for my heart and spirit than I could ever express!