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 three long and difficult years in Ecuador and, before that, their lives in Colombia.

The cold weather caught them off guard when they landed at Auckland International Airport. They weren’t prepared for the chill, so had to go shopping for warm jackets on their very first day in the country.

The family had never heard of the word “Nueva Zelanda” before Immigration New Zealand announced they could move here under the refugee quota. Not knowing where their new country was didn’t worry them, however, as to them New Zealand meant a safe place to live, away from violence and discrimination.

After spending six weeks in Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, Jose, Maria and Nidia finally made it to Invercargill – their new home. Despite the chilly weather, the family received a warm welcome – their two Red Cross Refugee Support Volunteers, Julia and Vildana, tasked to support the family settle in the city, were waiting for them at the airport with more warm coats, just in case they didn’t have any.

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

“We were welcomed by Julia 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.

Our trained Red Cross refugee support volunteers play an important role in helping families find their feet. They are former refugees’ first local friends and help them navigate the city, go shopping, enrol at the doctor, use public transport, read letters, walk to school and much more.

“Jose, Maria and Nidia would have done very well without volunteers but having somebody who will be here and you can ask the silly questions to, it just makes it easier,” says Julia.

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

Fast-forward almost a year later and Jose, Maria and Nidia’s lives have changed considerably. Jose has adapted to the weather and all three enjoy the tranquility Invercargill offers. The only noise around the house is the few cries and giggles from baby Salome, the new addition to the family.

Salome, Nidia’s daughter, is the first generation of their family to be born in New Zealand. While the pregnancy was a surprise for Nidia’s parents, Salome has brought an incredible amount of joy. 

Three generations - grandmother Maria with her daughter Nidia and her granddaughter Salome.

“We found out in Auckland. It took a bit of time to react and for it to sink in, but we talked a lot. Salome is very entertaining, and we are very, very happy to have her,” says Jose.

Jose and Maria are hopeful for Salome’s future, as in New Zealand, she will grow up with many opportunities, such at study and work, without discrimination. Nidia’s parents were relieved when they realised Nidia’s schooling wouldn’t be affected by having Salome.

Salome has also brought the family closer to Invercargill locals Josh and Lynelle. Josh is Jose’s employer - a typical Kiwi, keen to help the family in any possible way. Lynelle, his wife, originally from Belize in Central America, speaks Spanish, which has been a huge help to the family. The couple happen to have had a baby recently, too.

“Lynelle was at the hospital when Salome was born, so she could help with the translating,” Josh explains.

“It’s difficult enough on your own when you go to the hospital, so when you don’t understand the language, it helps to have someone who does. Now they both have a baby and Lynelle spends a lot of time with Nidia.”

Josh is one of those guys who is willing to give anyone a chance. This is how he took Jose on board as a labourer in his building company.

Jose and Josh, his employer and family friend.

“I needed a worker to help out and at the same time, I was brainstorming ways with my wife, Lynelle, how we could help former refugees in Invercargill. So I thought ‘Why not employ someone? It’d be a cool challenge to take on and a good way to learn Spanish,’” says Josh.

Thankfully, Josh could speak a little bit of Spanish before meeting Jose, which helped a lot with giving instructions or teaching Jose how to do the work. Both have also been using hand gestures, which has led to a few good laughs among the team.

Jose enjoying his job as a labourer for Josh's construction company.

“Jose has a good work ethic. He is very capable and willing to learn. If he doesn’t know something, he will ask. I will show him how to do something, and he will be very quick at picking it up. I’ve been very impressed by Jose, he’s come a long way – he’s a blessing to us,” says Josh.

Jose isn’t the only one who has found employment. Every morning, Maria’s smile and warmth brightens up many residents’ days at the Enliven residential aged cared home in Invercargill. She doesn’t speak English very well yet, but enough to greet everyone and get on with her cleaning.

“The residents love her too. She’s fitted in so well and she is really good at cleaning,” says Enliven Facility Manager, Hayley Gould.

Maria’s Red Cross refugee support volunteer Julia connected her with her previous work place in the hope that Maria could get some work experience to improve her English.

After just one day on the job, Hayley thought Maria fitted in so well that she could move to paid work. With the help of New Zealand Red Cross’ Pathways to Employment programme, Maria received an induction from the aged care facility, translated into Spanish. She is now fine on her own, using Google Translate when things are more difficult.

Maria's bright smile while working for Enliven residential aged cared home as a house keeper.

“Maria just comes in, she has a big smile on her face. We learn to say ‘Hola’ and she says ‘Good morning’. She comes in, she gets her trolley and away she goes and every time you see her, she’s got this big smile on her face. She appears to be very happy in her job,” says Daphne, Enliven Senior Care Worker.

“Now she is a grandmother, so she showed us all her baby photos. That was really nice, so we talked to the residents and they’ve asked to see photos too!” Daphne adds.

With the help of many local friends, Jose, Maria, Nidia and now Salome have gone through a busy year starting their new lives in Southland. This month, we are celebrating one year since Invercargill welcomed the first former refugee family to the city. Within one year, 88 new Kiwis, including Jose, Maria and Nidia, made Invercargill their new home.

New Zealand Red Cross is the primary provider of community refugee resettlement programmes in New Zealand, supporting and empowering new Kiwis as they rebuild their lives.

“Red Cross is our second family because they always help us. They have helped us and they are still helping us. They are great,” says Jose.

How to help

If you would like to know more about our Migration Programmes across Aotearoa, want to volunteer or have an employee position available, get in touch with your local team here.

Migration programmes