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Five years and five families later, Graham says working with former refugee families is the best thing he has ever done. “They’re like our children now. They’re very much family. We often say how lucky we are to know all these people. You get to try some beautiful food and you also get invited to all kinds of things.”
Graham and Noeleen, who have four children and eight grand-children of their own, have worked with a number of former refugees: a couple from Burma who had been living in Malaysia, three Kayan sisters and their families, who had been living in refugee camps in Thailand and most recently, a Bhutanese couple who had been living in a refugee camp in Nepal.
“After a while, they’ll tell you their stories and they are so sad,” says Noeleen. “Often they’ve had to escape on foot through the jungle in fear of soldiers catching up with them. Many have had to leave family behind.”
Although Red Cross Refugee Services ask for a six month commitment from volunteers, many like Noeleen and Graham will stay in touch with the families indefinitely. The first few weeks after the families arrive are the most intensive. The volunteers usually work in teams of four and are assigned to assist the families with different aspects of living such as household, health, education or Work and Income benefits. Volunteers are asked to complete a short training course first.
Graham and Noeleen have normally assisted with ‘household’ tasks which can include everything from meeting families at the airport to setting up houses and going grocery shopping. Small things that Kiwis take for granted can be baffling – such as understanding the postal system, smoke alarms or how to operate a washing machine. Even for those who can read and speak English well, learning to understand Kiwi slang and culture takes time.
“The language is a huge barrier especially for the older ones if they don’t read and write,” says Noeleen. “And there’s the occasional nasty incident. We have to let them know that although New Zealand is a lovely, safe country, there’s still danger. They are very trusting.”
Special moments for Graham and Noeleen have included attending a citizenship ceremony with one of the families and watching one of the Kayan men graduate from an Automotive Engineering course at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.
“If you’ve got the time, it’s so rewarding,” says Graham. “You get more out of it than they do. It can take more time than you thought but we’ve made such great friends – not only with the families themselves but also with the staff from Refugee Services and other team members. It’s been a privilege.”
Story credit: Mudcakes and Roses, see the original publication here.