Paul Kumbuka has dedicated his life to supporting and advocating for people in need. For someone whose entire ethos revolves around kindness and compassion, you'd never suspect that Paul, himself, has lived through encounters that no one would ever hope to experience themselves.

Paul is a human rights advocate, a refugee, and a community support worker for Kiwis – both old and new. His mission to give back and support his community says a lot about the type of person he is a kind, respectful, hardworking man Aotearoa is lucky to have.

This is his story.

The flight

As a human rights advocate, Paul has never been afraid to speak up for what he believes in, even if doing so puts him at risk of arrest by those he is criticising. Paul has been jailed multiple times.

In 2004, Paul was 20 years old and in the middle of his Political Science degree at university in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when he was detained and tortured for 20 days due to his political beliefs. His injuries were so severe that he wound up in hospital and some of his colleague arrested with him die in prison. With the help of a friend, Paul managed to break out of the hospital – and the people who were keeping him captive – but after making this lifesaving escape, Paul’s life was still in danger. He had no other choice than to flee his home country to neighbouring Uganda.

“I walked and hitched a ride on these big lorries until I reached Uganda. I crossed the border illegally, because I had no identification, no visa, no passport, nothing,” says Paul.

Upon arrival, Paul reached out to the United Nations Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) and the local police to be registered as a refugee. Six months later, he was granted refugee status. This meant he was protected under international law and couldn’t be sent back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as this would be a direct threat to his life.

“Until 2007, I was alone and had no news from my family back in Congo and had no idea how they were. It was tough,” he shares.

Thankfully, with the help of another Congolese refugee Paul had met in Uganda, he was able to reconnect with his family. A few months later, three of his young siblings joined him across the border.

“Life was hard,” he says. “Being in Uganda for more than nine years was sad for my soul. I couldn’t achieve my dreams. Sometimes I got something to eat, sometimes I didn’t. I didn’t receive any support.”

Paul needed an outlet – something he could direct his energy and ambition in to. He quickly got involved with local churches and non-governmental organisations to support young people in his community. As years passed, Paul’s involvement with these groups grew and he became the Country Director of a French organisation supporting children, refugees, and women in the region.

“It was still dangerous for us Congolese; we were still attacked in Uganda simply because we were from Congo.”

Paul Kumbuka with refugee children in Uganda during his work with local humanitarian organisations.

Aotearoa

In 2009, Paul’s wife, also a refugee from Congo living in Uganda, was offered settlement in New Zealand with her family as part of New Zealand’s Refugee Quota programme. Paul promptly began the process to get a visitor visa to see her, but it wasn’t until 2014 that he, along with his 10-year old daughter, Judith , was given a temporary visa and was able to be reunited with his wife in Kirikiriroa, Hamilton.Pathways to Settlement

As visitors to our country, Paul and his daughter were unable to access governmental support systems for schooling or finances, so life was difficult for the newly reunited family. Paul made the decision to apply for asylum in Aotearoa, which meant asking the New Zealand Government to recognise himself and his daughter as refugees and grant them protection in this country. This process included proving that it was unsafe for them to be sent back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a process he had already gone through in Uganda.

As Paul was already recognised as a refugee overseas, this process only took six months. He found some casual work in Hamilton and quickly got involved with New Zealand Red Cross as a refugee support volunteer, helping newly arrived refugees settle into their new city.

“I love working with communities and helping people – that is my aim in life,” he says. “I understand how I suffered back home, in Uganda, and here when I arrived, so I want to support as much as I can, and I decided to join Red Cross.

“I see Red Cross is doing a wonderful job helping people like myself, so why not join them and support with the little I have, helping refugees here.”

New Zealand Red Cross’ refugee support volunteers are a core part of the services the organisation offers to former refugees. They are a friendly face and supportive guide matched with a newly arrived family or individual. As a refugee support volunteer, Paul has helped multiple families from Colombia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, settle into their new lives in Hamilton.

“I enjoy volunteering, because I meet with different people, different cultures, different faiths, different values and different beliefs.”

In 2017, Paul studied for a level 2 and 3 certificate in Health and Wellbeing, and found full-time work with HealthCare New Zealand as a Community Support Worker. His role involves providing care and support to people in their homes, from lending a hand with their shopping, to preparing food or helping them take a shower and medication.

“When I see their faces when I support them, I feel happy. I love my job,” says Paul.

A few years later, in 2019, Paul was offered a paid role at New Zealand Red Cross as a Cross-Cultural Worker – later promoted to Case Worker – providing language, cultural and informed support to newly arrived former refugee families in Hamilton. Passionate about his two roles, Paul took on the challenge of supporting both new and old Kiwis alike and devoted himself to two different jobs at the same time.

COVID-19 essential worker, Paul Kumbuka.

Two essential jobs

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe and reached the shores of Aotearoa, it highlighted the most important jobs in our society which, until now, hadn’t been often celebrated. While most Kiwis stayed home during Alert Levels 3 and 4 to stop the spread of COVID-19, some of these workers were able to carry out their essential front-facing duties.

Paul is one of these people. His work as a Community Support Worker at HealthCare New Zealand and as a Caseworker at New Zealand Red Cross were granted ‘essential service’ status. Paul played a crucial role in supporting vulnerable members of our communities during lockdown.

“I felt special, I was excited to be important,” he shares.

“I worked a lot during lockdown because both my two jobs needed me. I started my health care job at 6AM to see the people in the morning, give them medication and breakfast. At 9AM sharp, I’d finish and go home to support former refugee families, then at 3.30PM, I would go back to my other job.”

Paul provided a wide range of support in his role as a Community Support Worker, from picking up medications or doing shopping on behalf of his clients, to keeping them company and reassuring them in what was a difficult and often frightening time.

His role with Red Cross included daily phone check-ins with 12 former refugee families, some of whom had only been in Hamilton for a few days prior to the country going into full lockdown. Paul played an important part in ensuring these families clearly understood the new measures announced by the government and that they had everything they needed to stay at home safe, with a robust self-isolation plan in place.

“It was tough, but as long as we are supporting our people and keeping them safe, it was worth it,” he says, beaming with pride.

Essential Kiwi Legends

Ahead of World Refugee Day on 20 June, New Zealand Red Cross is acknowledging the important contribution made during COVID-19 Alert Level changes from essential workers with a refugee background. Find out more about the Essential Kiwi Legends campaign.