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If there were a Red Cross title for the longest-serving refugee support volunteer or the most dedicated one, Lakshman would probably be on the leaderboard. Eighty-three-year-old Lakshman is a Red Cross superstar – he has helped 14 families with a refugee background settle in Hamilton.
“When did I start? Oh, it was so long ago, I can’t remember, maybe 2005-2006,” says Lakshman laughing. When Lakshman retired 20 years ago, he thought to himself: “Am I going to sit down and watch TV all day or am I going to do something?” After seeing an advert in the paper looking for volunteers, Lakshman knew he wasn’t going to be sitting in his lounge all day – he had just found what would keep him busy during his retirement.
As the primary provider of community refugee settlement in Aotearoa, New Zealand Red Cross has around 1,000 refugee support volunteers across the country who play a vital role in ensuring newly arrived former refugees feel at home in New Zealand.
From setting up homes, taking families to the supermarket, enrolling the children at school, teaching them to use the public transport and giving them a hand with understanding bills and other paperwork, our volunteers are directly and practically involved in the settlement process.
Lakshman’s first family was from Somalia – one mother and her 11 children.
“It was a struggle because we couldn’t communicate in English and the culture was very different, so I learnt body language, I learnt to listen, I learnt to observe… and I succeeded at helping them out. After I helped Congolese, Somali, Colombian, Afghani, Pakistani and Burmese families,” says Lakshman.
Before volunteers are matched with a family or an individual, they go through a training to prepare them for their placement – they learn about the refugee journey, the type of support individuals need or challenges they may face, the services available for help, and the culture of country they come from. Sometimes, volunteers face situations they didn’t anticipate.
“One day about 11pm I get this phone call,” explains Lakshman.
“‘Lakshman, Lakshman, come, soon come, water’, my family said on the phone. I said to them: ‘Hang on, what is it?’ Then the family said: ‘You come soon, you come soon, water’.”
“So I went to see what was happening – all the lights were on in the house when I arrived and they were all in the garage. Then, I saw the water on the floor – they had put plates in the washing machine, thinking it was the dishwasher. They had never used either of these before, so it was confusing for them.”
Often volunteers build strong friendships with their families and, for Lakshman, that also means being introduced to new people and making new friends among the community.
“Over the years, I’ve kept friendships with probably 80% of the families I have helped. Just last week, I had three families who invited me over; I had two dinners and one lunch. I keep meeting people too. For example, when I go to a Colombian family, there is often another family, so I meet them and make new friends, then this new family invites me to dinners too,” shares Lakshman with a smile.
Lakshman has a heart of gold with a drive to give back to his community and help people in need, which is what drives him to keep volunteering with new Kiwis. Many years ago, he supported Poe, a former refugee woman from Myanmar who became a friend. When he heard her two sons were arriving to New Zealand a few months ago, he immediately rang Red Cross and asked to be a volunteer again for Aung and Mai.
“It’s the challenge I like about this work. Most of them don’t speak English and if I succeed in giving my knowledge to them, show them how things are done in New Zealand, and if they can integrate, then I feel like I have achieved something,” says Lakshman.
“Not all volunteers have come back, but I am proud that I have. It doesn’t pay money, but it pays off in a different way, in how it makes you feel.”
If you’re feeling inspired by Lakshman’s story, check out how you can support former refugee families in your area:
- Volunteer as a refugee support volunteer, helping support a new family as they settle. Register here.
- Donate to support our work with newly arrived refugees in New Zealand and our work internationally with refugees.
- Donate small household goods that will help turn houses into homes for refugee families.
- Offer someone from a refugee background a job, which is a key part of the settlement process.
- Reach out and help new Kiwis become part of the community. A friendly welcome can make a world of difference.