Merci Musabutsa is one of these young people who has had a few more challenges along the way. Originally from Congo, Merci moved a lot before settling in New Zealand – first to Burundi, then Kenya and eventually Rwanda, where he and his family finally gained refugee status.

Merci arrived in Aotearoa with his parents and four siblings on 25 October 2018 under the New Zealand refugee quota – a day he will never forget.

“When I arrived in New Zealand, it was six in the morning. First of all, I felt the cold, although it was spring in Auckland! But I felt really happy with my family,” shares Merci.

Supporting young people

Merci is now settled with the rest of his family in Hamilton. He is enjoying his new life, but it hasn’t always been easy to make friends in his new town – a challenge many other young former refugees face.

This is why Sara Bakhtiari, New Zealand Red Cross’ Settlement Youth Worker in Hamilton, begun organising activities for young people with a refugee background.

“I was one of these young people,” says Sara.

“When we come here as refugees, we try to settle. We are very busy learning about New Zealand and adapt to the education system. Also, most of our young people here are busy with their studies or part-time jobs, or going shopping for their family, worrying about the budget. I found that they don’t have enough time or money to do fun stuff or are able to drive outside of Hamilton.”

To support the young newcomers, Sara has organised an array of activities, such as workshops, sporting activities and a day out at the beach to learn safety measures.

“These activities are a really good opportunity to build friendships and socialise. They [refugee-background youth] don’t often have time to do these things. They are under a lot of pressure and have a lot of things to learn, so I help them finding friends and socialise.”

The magic of Rotorua

With the help of John Paul College, Sara coordinated a day out to explore Rotorua with 15 newly arrived former refugees. From luging down the skyline, to visiting Te Puia and having their first encounter with our famous bird, it was a day full of emotions for the young people.

“It was my first time to see a kiwi bird – I was so excited!,” shares Merci laughing.

“I could have stayed there for an hour, just watching the bird, it was really amazing.”

The trip to Rotorua was more than discovering the beauty of the region, it was about mingling with other young people and socialising in a safe and fun environment, both with other former refugees and students from Rotorua.

“I really like was the way the two groups were engaging. Some of them couldn’t speak English at all, but they were still trying to speak to each other,” says Sara.

“When we went to Te Puia, when I saw how happy they were, when they felt the ground and how hot it was. And when they saw the Kiwi bird and I saw their excitement, it made me so emotional, I just wanted to cry. I wasn’t doing anything, they were the ones doing everything.”

The group of young people at Te Puia, the geotermal site in Rotorua.

It was also an important day for Merci’s sisters, Emeline and Angelique, who had faced challenges settling in Aotearoa and making new friends. Merci is convinced their day in Rotorua changed his sisters somehow and gave them more confidence to meet new people and interact with Kiwis.

“On the trip, I made friends with the people from Hamilton, which helped me a lot, but I can see the big different on my sisters. Because from the time we went to these different events, my sister became less shy,” explains Merci.

“When I say I can see a big difference on my sisters, now I can see they can do everything by themselves. When they come back from school now, they are off seeing their new Kiwi friends, they are no longer shy. My 15-year-old sister now she has two Kiwi girlfriends and they do sport activities each night, that is thanks to the events they have attended, I am sure of that.” 

A win-win situation

But it wasn’t just a good day for the young people coming from Hamilton. For the students of John Paul college, it was beneficial on many levels. After a big day experiencing the magic of Rotorua, Sara recalls the emotion among the group:

“By the end of the day, we all went back to the college and I could see they were hugging each other. And some of them even cry and said ‘I wish you guys could stay here longer!’. Then our young people would reply, ‘When you guys come to Hamilton, please come to our house and we want to invite you and make our food.”

“It made me so emotional. The love they had for each other was so nice.”

“For the students of John Paul’s College, they learnt a lot of things from our young people and their culture and about the refugee journey. They were very welcoming towards our young people,” says Sara.

Merci is thrilled with these youth activities Sara organises and he hopes many more young people will be able to join these events.

“I want to say thank you. I don’t know how it works, but I know there are expenses for the event and I want to thank people who make it possible,” shares Merci.

“Keep helping other people, Red Cross, because from my experience, I know how hard it is when people arrive in the country for the first time, especially from Africa to here. There are many challenges here but when these people attend those events, especially young people, they will open their mind and meet friends and not be shy at school. Thank you for helping guys, I wish you can carry on helping other people.” 

Merci and Farij, another refugee-background youth, on the luge in Rotorua.

Supporting new Kiwis across Aotearoa

New Zealand Red Cross is the primary provider of refugee settlement in Aotearoa, supporting newcomers build a new life across New Zealand. With the help of more than 130 trained staff and close to 1,000 volunteers, we support people up to 12 months after their arrival.

There are a few ways you can support newly arrived former refugees in your area:

  • Volunteer as a refugee support volunteer, helping support a new family as they settle. Register here.
  • Donate to support our work with newly arrived refugees in New Zealand and our work internationally with refugees.
  • Donate small household goods that will help turn houses into homes for refugee families.
  • Offer someone from a refugee background a job, which is a key part of the settlement process.
  • Reach out and help new Kiwis become part of the community. A friendly welcome can make a world of difference.