Upon first meeting Maria Jojoa, you might mistake her relatively reserved nature to mean her personality veers toward shyness, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Maria has a heart of gold and the courage of a lion. She is kind, warm, and leaves a lasting impact on everyone she meets, regardless of their age or the language they speak.

Maria is a former refugee from Colombia whose journey safety was paved with uncertainty. Today, she can be found pushing her cleaning trolley around a well-known residential aged care facility in Invercargill, spreading endless amounts of joy to the people she works with.

Maria stepped up during one of Aotearoa’s toughest times to ensure the safety of the elderly residents she cares for. As an essential worker during our COVID-19 response, Maria overcame her fear of the virus to support her community.

This is Maria’s story.

Nueva Zelanda

19 May 2018 was a day Jose, Maria and their daughter Nidia will never forget. They had finally arrived in New Zealand – a country totally unknown to them – leaving behind them three long and difficult years in Ecuador and, before that, their lives in Colombia.

The cold weather caught them completely off guard when they first touched down at Auckland International Airport. They weren’t at all prepared for the chill that awaited them beyond the arrival hall, so they had to go shopping for warm jackets on their very first day in the country.

The family had never heard of “Nueva Zelanda” before Immigration New Zealand told them they could move here under the New Zealand Refugee Quota programme. Despite not knowing where their new country was in relation to the rest of the world, they jumped at the opportunity. To them, “Nueva Zelanda” represented a safe place to live, away from violence and discrimination.

After spending six weeks in Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, where they learned more about Kiwi culture and lifestyle, Jose, Maria and Nidia finally made it to Invercargill – their new home. Notwithstanding the chilly weather, the family received a warm welcome.

“We were welcomed by our Red Cross volunteers at the airport, with jackets, and then in our new home, with Colombian food. We were very happy, we didn’t expect so much,” says Maria.

Red Cross refugee support volunteers play an important role in helping families find their feet after settling in to their new homes. They are former refugees’ first local friends who help them navigate the city, go shopping, register at healthcare centres, use public transport, walk to school, and so much more.

 “Our two volunteers are really good,” says Maria. “They are part of the family now. They’ve been very helpful with everything.”

One volunteer in particular, Julia, went the extra mile in her role by introducing Maria to her previous workplace, a rest home in Invercargill, in the hope that Maria could get some work experience to improve her English. Finding employment is a key part of the settlement process, as it gives former refugees financial independence and offers them the opportunity to use their skills and contribute to their community. Maria jumped at the chance.

After just one day as a housekeeper, her employer thought Maria took to the job so well that she could move to paid work immediately. With the help of New Zealand Red Cross’ Pathways to Employment programme, Maria’s induction to the aged care facility was translated into Spanish. She is now fine on her own, and is able to use Google Translate when things are more difficult.

Nidia, Maria, Jose and Salome with their local friend and Red Cross Refugee Support Volunteer Julia.

Four mornings a week, Maria’s smile and warmth brightens the halls of the residential aged cared home. She isn’t wholly confident in her English abilities yet, but she knows enough to greet everyone and get on with her cleaning. Residents have learned to say ‘hola’ in response to Maria’s ‘good morning’, which means the absolute world to her.

In collaboration with the Pathways to Employment programme, the rest home was able to find their 'perfect fit' when they hired Maria. She has brought cultural and social diversity and richness to her community, and, along the way, she has built a special connection with the people she works with – language barrier and all.

Maria didn’t speak a word of English when she first arrived to Aotearoa, but she continues to make a tremendous effort to converse with people whenever she can. Alongside her work, she takes English classes twice a week. It’s a “busy life, but a happy one,” she smiles.

Essential worker

Fast forward almost three years post-arrival and Jose, Maria and Nidia’s lives have changed considerably. Jose has adapted to the weather and all three enjoy the tranquillity their life in Invercargill offers. These days, their home echoes with the delightful cries and giggles of baby Daniel and toddler Salome, the newest additions to the family.

Salome, Nidia’s daughter, is the first generation of their family to be born in Aotearoa. Daniel, Maria and Jose’s son, was born a few months after the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Both children have brought an incredible amount of joy to the family.

Maria is still working as a housekeeper and her relationship with the residents has grown overtime.

“Now I can see they trust me more, because they try to make jokes with me! They unplug the vacuum cleaner or do other sneaky things; they have more contact with me.”

When COVID-19 reached our shores, it was evident from experiences overseas that the elderly were particularly at risk of contracting the virus. So, when we went into lockdown, aged care facilities across Aotearoa took extra measures to protect their residents. These efforts required many people to continue their front-line jobs to ensure vulnerable members of our communities were looked after – people like Maria.

“I felt very privileged to be able to work during the lockdown, and was quite scared at times, but knew that it was very important.”

Maria Jojoa, COVID-19 essential worker.

Maria Jojoa, COVID-19 essential worker.

As an essential worker, Maria was required to come to work. Her job was crucial – cleaning surfaces to ensure the virus wouldn’t survive, should it have made its way inside the aged care facility.

“It was a bit overwhelming at first, because we had to be extremely careful around sanitising our hands and cleaning surfaces and make sure there was no transmission. I feel like I had more responsibilities.”

Another difficulty Maria faced during lockdown was the change in the way she was able to interact with residents, who were moved to another part of the home while she was cleaning their room.

“I missed talking to the residents. I feel very happy when I can understand them and help them in any way. But I felt sad when I couldn’t speak with them [during Alert Level 3 and 4].”

Thankfully, for now, lockdown is behind us. Maria is once again able to interact with residents and other community members, spreading a bit of warmth and kindness everywhere she goes.

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.