Each year, thousands of people are separated from their families by conflicts, disasters and forced migration. The impact of disappearances or separation on individuals, families and communities is one of the most damaging and long-lasting humanitarian consequences of armed conflict, causing immense suffering to families.

Each year, war, persecution and oppression force people to flee and embark on a perilous journey in the hope of finding safety.

The agonising uncertainty of knowing when or if they will see their loved ones again is a feeling Ali Mashal knows all too well. When Ali was just 15 years old, he was faced with a decision a young man of his age should never have to make: whether to flee home and leave everything and everyone behind, in return for his safety.

As life was getting increasingly dangerous for teenagers in Afghanistan, especially for anyone aspiring to be educated, Ali was forced to say goodbye to his family, leaving his home country.

Ali flew on his own from Kabul to India, then to Malaysia, where he took a three-and-half-hour boat ride to reach Indonesia.

“We didn’t have life-jackets,” recalls Ali, with fear in his eyes.

“There were about 30 people, sitting so close. It was scary, every time the boat jumped, we had to hold on so we wouldn’t fall in the water. I’ll never forget this.”

Upon arrival, Ali was placed in a facility with other displaced people. For nine months, he was only allowed one hour outside in the courtyard. There was little for him to do and the living conditions were harsh. Once his refugee claim was assessed by the United Nations, Ali was placed in safer shelter hosting unaccompanied minors.

It’s in Indonesia that Ali discovered boxing – a hobby which helped him get through the terribly difficult conditions he was living in. As a strong enthusiast of boxing movies, Ali asked his friend, another refugee who was trained in Muay Thai, if he could teach him how to box.

“Boxing in Indonesia helped me a lot – it allowed me not to give up. If I hadn’t had boxing, I wouldn’t be living, I would have given up,” explains Ali.

“Life over there was so hard, but it was also a good lesson of life.”

The Kiwi dream

After five long years in Indonesia, Ali was finally offered resettlement in Aotearoa New Zealand. When Ali arrived in Auckland in March 2019, he was determined to achieve his two dreams: bring his family who was still in Afghanistan to New Zealand and become New Zealand’s next boxing champion.

Ali explained his situation of family separation to Immigration New Zealand the day he landed in Auckland, in the hope of bringing them over. Ali was persistent, calling them back every day after that. Being reunited with his mother and two brothers was key to Ali’s happiness, as he was concerned about them still living in an unsafe country.

In order to ease the pain of still being separated from his loved ones and to work on his plan to become a professional boxer, Ali quickly joined a boxing club.

“Boxing helped me a lot in New Zealand, too,” says Ali.

“Every morning, I would be at the gym. At home, I would feel lonely and think of my family, question myself, worry about my family’s safety. So, I’d go everyday hit the bag and feel better. Boxing has helped me sleep at night.”

Ali’s ultimate goal is to represent New Zealand at the Olympics, so he didn’t waste any time and just two weeks into his training, Ali fought his first fight in Wellington.

A boxing champion in the making, Ali Mashal.

Together, at last

After one year in New Zealand, Ali received the news that he had been waiting for so long – the day he would be reunited with his family was not far away. His mum and two younger brothers had been offered settlement in New Zealand under the Refugee Family Support programme. Ali was able to start counting down the days until they would be together again.

“I couldn’t sleep for three days before they arrived,” explains Ali with excitement in his voice.

“I caught the bus for 12 hours from Wellington to Auckland and went straight to the airport, then waited for hours until they arrived!”

The long journey was definitely worth it – the emotion at the airport was intense.

“I was so happy when I saw them, especially my mum, after five and a half years,” explains Ali with the biggest smile.

“I tried not to cry, so I could be strong for my mum. It was a happy time, I didn’t want her to be sad.”

For Ali’s mum, Zahra, reuniting with her son, finally, was a day she will never forget either.

“I was so happy to see Ali, after such a long time! I had missed him so much,” says Zahra, with teary eyes.

“I got very emotional and so happy at the airport. Both tears and happiness were coming.”

Now his dream of being reunited with his family has become real, Ali is focusing on becoming New Zealand’s next boxing champion. Ali’s story is far from over.

Ali and his mum, Zahra, finally reunited in Wellington.

Supporting reunited families

New Zealand Red Cross supports former refugees, like Ali and his family, throughout the country. As the primary provider of refugee settlement, our role is to assist people with a refugee background have the best possible start in New Zealand – from Red Cross volunteers being matched with new arrivals and social workers assisting families adjust to a safe life, to our teams matching Kiwi employers with former refugees and teaching former refugees how to drive.

Our Restoring Family Links team also helps families in New Zealand locate missing loved ones overseas where the separation was caused by war, armed conflict, disaster or migration. With the help of our International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, we work around the world to prevent separation and disappearances, to help locate people and put them back in contact with their relatives, help families maintain contact and try to clarify the fate of those who remain missing.

There are a few ways you can support newly arrived former refugees 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.