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It’s Saturday morning, and at Te Manawa Museum, a group of children are singing a waiata.
They haven’t had a chance to practise, but the young group recite the lyrics fluently. It’s an impressive feat, especially considering the words are in Te Reo – their third or fourth language.
These children are all from refugee families, part of a group that arrived in New Zealand only a few weeks ago. They learnt the waiata during their stay at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, but today’s performance is spontaneous, part of a powhiri organised by New Zealand Red Cross.
Twelve families from Afghanistan and Myanmar, along with Red Cross volunteers, local MP Iain Lees-Galloway and representatives from the Maori community, have gathered for the powhiri. The groups have come together to celebrate the families’ arrival to Palmerston North.
It’s the first time the Palmerston North team has used a powhiri to welcome new refugee families, but any doubts about its success have been quickly put to rest, Red Cross Humanitarian Services Manager Sonja De Lange explains.
“When the children were singing, people were in tears – it was a moving experience,” she says.“The families are really focused on hope – they want to be part of the community, they see a future here for their kids. This was a good opportunity to break down any fears, and to share cultures.”
Palmerston North usually welcomes about 14 per cent of new families arriving in New Zealand. This month, the city will resettle 25 per cent, as Wellington prepares to accommodate the first group of Syrian refugees arriving through an emergency intake.
The powhiri is one way the Palmerston North team has embraced the extra refugees. After a shared morning tea, it’s time for another, less formal welcome for the new families.
The families, volunteers and staff clamber aboard a bus for a tour around some of the city’s important locations.
Iain Lees-Galloway has agreed to act as a tour guide. He chats to the families about each site as they visit the Square, the Esplanade, the swimming pool, Massey University and the city’s religious centres.
This is a good way for families to become more familiar with their new home, but it also has a more immediate benefit, Sonja says.
“School doesn’t start until January, and the kids will be at home until then, so we realise it’s important for families to know where the swimming pools is, where the park is.”
From the families’ point of the view, the day has also been incredibly valuable.
“This helped my family feel like the Palmerston North community is accepting and welcoming,” Red Cross volunteer Peter Maiyaven says. “The powhiri potentially breaks down cultural barriers that new families are unfamiliar with.”
The Palmerston North team plans to repeat the powhiri and bus tour to welcome the next group of families, who arrive in February.