Age can be deceiving. Often, it’s only a number on paper or on a birthday cake. Whatever age you are, what really matters is what you do with it — and Ian Baldwin could attest to this.

At 86 years old, Ian is one of New Zealand Red Cross’ most active and dedicated volunteers. His amazing energy and ever-present sense of humour have allowed him to touch the lives of countless former refugee families settling in Dunedin.

Ian’s life-changing journey with Red Cross started a few years ago, when he was looking at ways to keep active.

“My wife died six years ago. Since she’s died, I’ve been living by myself in a big house,” shares Ian.

“I found myself sitting around, twiddling my thumb, feeling sorry for myself and not really achieving anything. I thought that’s not good, I need something. So I looked for something to volunteer for.”

Ian first became a Meals on Wheels driver, but when he saw an article in the local paper about refugees arriving to Dunedin, it immediately sparked his interest so he took on the role of Red Cross refugee support volunteer

Supporting new Kiwis

Red Cross refugee support volunteers play a key role in ensuring new Kiwis receive the best possible start in New Zealand. A team of volunteers is matched with a family, which they support for their first three to six months in the community. Their role includes linking them with local services, showing their new city, helping navigate the public transport, and essentially becoming their first local friends. 

“One day, after my first placement, I was asked by Red Cross if I could take another family to an appointment and they were such a delightful family that, that was it – I was hooked,” says Ian, with a warm smile.

“After that, I said to Red Cross: ‘Alright, you keep me busy, and I will stay as long as you need me. But if you don’t keep me busy, I am leaving.’ So they kept me busy ever since!”

Thanks to his heart of gold, his incredible patience and huge kindness, Ian has been placed with nine different former refugee families. Through these connections, Ian has become friends with many more, impacting the lives countless families in Otago.

“The families I have met have been fantastic and they are extremely lovely people, very friendly, with good sense of humor, which suits me because I have a tendency to be humorous,” says Ian. 

Ian takes his volunteer role seriously. He swapped his new car for a second-hand people mover to be able to transport whole families at once. This has allowed him to travel around Otago and see new places with people, something he really enjoys.

From volunteer to grandfather

His love for kids and non-judgmental attitude made Ian an exceptional volunteer among new arrivals. Over time, for some newly arrived former refugees close to Ian, he has become a part of their family.

Soraya, who fled Afghanistan to seek refuge in Iran, arrived to Dunedin in October 2019 with her 13-year-old son. Ian was her support volunteer who has now become her close friend.

“Now we are all like a family, he is always available and there for us. He is amazing,” says Soraya.

“I can’t express my feeling by words, because Ian has been very kind to me. When I came here at the beginning I felt a bit depressed, but he was always helping me and trying to make me laugh and happy.”

Soraya made friends with other single ladies from Afghanistan, and Ian also had a chance to meet and befriend them.

Somayeh, one of the ladies, says, “For Ian, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity, what age or what religion you are from, he is kind to everyone.”

“The most important thing for a refugee is the emotional support. Ian is providing just that; he is a complete friend. He can support without expecting anything in return. He has become like a father or grandfather to us.”

Soraya, Somayeh, Mansoureh and Ziba organised a suprised birthday party for Ian last December. 

Staying connected during lockdown

With the threat of COVID-19, New Zealand Red Cross asked all its volunteers over the age of 70 to step down from their usual duty. Then, when Alert Level 4 and 3 were in place, Ian and thousands of other refugee support volunteers suddenly had to adapt their support slightly.

From the comfort of his own home, Ian has kept in touch with most the families he had met over the years.

“I have been either sending messages, letting them know I am still around and I’m still going to annoy them, or talking to them on the phone or video calls. We have chats with one another, which quite frankly has helped me a heck of a lot too, because I live on my own, so I’m pretty lonely by myself,” says Ian.

Aside from his friends with refugee background, Ian also received much needed support from a fellow Red Cross volunteer who lives nearby who even offered to help sort his shopping during the lockdown. This kind of thoughtful gesture made him further appreciate his involvement in the Red Cross.

Ian reflects, “I would say Red Cross is more likely my life now. Pretty much everything I do these days involves Red Cross. I have no intention of going away from all the friends I have made over the last few years, they have given me a new lease on life after the death of my much loved wife,” reflects Ian.

“Being a refugee support volunteer gives you a new interest in life and something which makes it worth living for.”

Feeling inspired?

If Ian’s story has inspired you to get involved, here are some ways you can help newly arrived former refugees in your community: