“I am always thinking of you. I hope we can meet up soon, so we can really get to know each other,” says Jacqueline, one of our refugee support volunteers in Christchurch to Feshale and his family, via online video chat.

Jacqueline is one of the five volunteers supporting the family settle in Christchurch. In usual times, their first meeting would be at the airport or in the family’s new home, but because of COVID-19 Alert Level 4 restrictions, they were only able to meet online through a video calling application.

Feshale, his wife Atsede and their eldest son, fled Eritrea in 2008 when Feshale was forced to do his military service. As a priest with the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, his religion forbids fighting and carrying a weapon, so the only way for him to avoid enrolling with the national service was to flee his home country. The family lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for 12 years, where they had three more children.

Feshale’s family eventually settled in Christchurch in March 2020.

“When we heard we were coming to New Zealand, we were very happy, because in the camp, we couldn’t work and the kids couldn’t go to school. We didn’t know anything about New Zealand, but we knew it was a better place,” explains Feshale.

The recent lockdown has made it difficult for new families to attend the usual orientation sessions organised by Red Cross to help them settle in their new community. However, with the help of technology, Red Cross staff across the country have found innovative ways to support them.

“The lockdown has made it difficult, but not impossible. One of the first things we did with families before the lockdown was to ensure they had group messaging and video calling applications set up on their phone and knew how to use them,” explains Aklilu Habteghiorghis, Settlement Lead worker in Christchurch.

“We’ve got WhatsApp groups for each ethnicity to send translated materials about COVID-19 and Government updates. We also organised presentations through video apps, so the family learnt all the important information.”

For Feshale, the information he learnt through a video call with his caseworker, Aklilu, was very useful.

“We learnt about emergency services and we were told to dial 111 and what to say in an emergency. It was very clear and good information,” explains Feshale.

Physical distancing, not social distancing

Each newly arrived family is matched with a team of volunteers tasked to support the family as they settle in their new community. This may include taking them for their grocery shopping, explaining how to pay bills, enrolling to the GP, and showing the kids their new school. Volunteers often become families’ first Kiwi friends. With the restriction around COVID-19 Alert Level 4, our volunteers have also found ways of overcoming the challenge of physical distance.

For Feshale and Atsede, that meant organising an online call with all their volunteers to celebrate Easter and meet everyone. In other parts of New Zealand, volunteers are using video calling apps with families to read bedtime illustrated stories to children, share photos of their daily activities and recipes, or simply check in to ensure their new friends are not feeling alone.

“We’ve received a lot of support from Red Cross staff and volunteers. Whatever we needed, they were there. They check in with us regularly and listen to us. There’s nothing we’re missing, but we’d like to meet our volunteers face-to-face soon,” says Atsede.

17 month old Selam sending kisses to her refugee support volunteers at the end of the video call.

Around Aotearoa

With the help of over 1,000 volunteers across Aotearoa, we are checking in daily with 358 former refugee families during the lockdown and have ensured each of them has a self-isolation plan in place. Deliveries of groceries, grocery vouchers, winter supplies (heaters and clothes) and medication from pharmacies have been carried out to support families and individuals with exceptional needs. Our teams have also translated the Ministry of Health’s messaging into 15 different languages and ensured families understand the lockdown rules and health and hygiene messages around COVID-19.

New Zealand Red Cross has been supporting vulnerable people from as far south as Invercargill all the way up to Kerikeri – find out more here.