Moved to Work

From New Zealand Society, 5:12 pm on 1 June 2015
Merhawi Woldemichael and Adam Awad.

Merhawi Woldemichael and community leader, Adam Awad, at the Meeting Tree Ethiopian Restaurant for an African People's Union gathering in honour of Adam Photo: RNZ Lize Immelman

An immigrant herself, Lize Immelman wonders why refugees have such a hard time finding work. She talks to three residents of Newtown, Wellington, about their experiences, and to MP Annette King, Andrew Lockhart from Immigration NZ and academic Gradon Diprose about why work is so important to our lives.

The Refugee Experience

Ali Quatar was born in Somalia and came to New Zealand when he was 11 years old. He went to Wellington High School and has two small children. He lives in Newtown.

“For me if I get the time or get the chance to open my own business, one day, I will. Driving a taxi is not something I’m willing to do forever,” he says. Ali is one of the many taxi drivers based in the central Wellington entertainment precinct of Courtenay Place, who came to this country as refugees.

Samson Sahele arrived in New Zealand 15 years ago from South Africa, having fled from his homeland of Ethiopia.

He found work at Refugee Trauma Recovery and helped publish The Blooming Lotus, which tells the stories of five refugee families.

“I want to encourage people to write their own story and share with the wider community, because it’s really important to share with New Zealand society your refugee life experience. That raises more awareness and understanding of each other.” Samson says many refugees who come to New Zealand can’t find work and resort to driving a taxi for a living.

Bishnu Dahal

Bishnu Dahal signing a copy of the Blooming Lotus at the launch in November 2014 Photo: RNZ Lize Immelman

Bishnu and CB Dahal are two refugees who contributed their life stories to the book. They’re originally from Bhutan and have been in New Zealand for four and a half years. For 20 years the family lived as asylum seekers in a camp in Nepal. But even there they could always cross the border to find work in India.

CB Dahal, Bishnu Dahal, Samson Sahele at the Blooming Lotus book launch

CB Dahal, Bishnu Dahal and Samson Sahele at the Blooming Lotus book launch. Photo: RNZ Lize Immelman

CB says he brought 25 years of work experience to New Zealand but couldn’t find work.

“Even if I want to work, I can’t work. The problem is that I get the standard reply. That I do not have New Zealand experience. It makes you feel as if you are unwanted. Psychologically it’s much more traumatic. There should be a way to help these people resettle within the community and make them feel at home, rather than make them feel alien to this land, even after four or five years.”

CB decided to do short courses in business administration and computers and went on to do a Master’s in Development Studies at Victoria University. “Of course now, thankfully someone managed to give me a job after volunteering with them for a few weeks,” he says.

Gradon Diprose is a lecturer at the Open Polytechnic in the School of Social Sciences. He explained sociologist Kathi Weeks thoughts about how in a modern capitalist society work is seen as a right to citizenship. Waged work is incredibly important if you want a meaningful life in a way others can understand. Contributing to taxes, shopping and buying a house are all ways a person contributes to society. “As a new immigrant or a refugee, if you can’t participate in that way, it leaves a hole in your life… I think it’s incredibly important for these people to feel like they’re creating a meaningful new life in New Zealand” he says.

Bishnu Dahal was a teacher in India and says she felt humiliated and neglected when she wasn’t allowed to work in New Zealand. CB agrees with her and wonders why the government can’t use the information they have already gathered before they arrive to the country to place refugees into the workforce.

Annette King

Annette King at the book launch Photo: RNZ Lize Immelman

Labour MP Annette King also thinks more can be done to help resettle the 750 refugees accepted by New Zealand each year. She says the government should look at the needs of each refugee individually and what his/her skills can offer the country. “So it’s a personalised approach with the aim of taking the skills that person has and getting them work ready in New Zealand.”

Andrew Lockhart is the National Manager, Refugee and Protection, for Immigration and works towards the 2013 Refugee Resettlement Strategy. “We measure (the outcomes of the Refugee Resettlement Strategy) each year. We’ve got five areas… and next year we should start to see whether we heading in the right direction or not”. These five areas address refugee self-sufficiency, participation, health, education and housing. Mr Lockhart says New Zealanders do understand refugees but more work can be done in finding ways in supporting them in employment.

Judi McCallum heads the Red Cross’ Pathways to Employment initiative, funded by Work and Income. This service aims to help refugees find work and it officially started in September last year. She agrees with Mr Lockhart and wants employers to seriously look at refugees when hiring. “[If] we undertake that a certain percentage of this group of people will be in sustainable employment within six months, which is what they say in their strategy, then how is that going to be achieved? And I think one of the key things is looking at the recruitment process.” Ms McCullum would like to see job hunters who do not have the normal Kiwi profile be called in for meetings and for employment to not only rely on a CV.

Merhawi Woldemichael

Merhawi Woldemichael in his office in Newtown Photo: RNZ Lize Immelman

Merhawi Woldemichael is a refugee from Eritrea. During the 8 years he has lived in New Zealand he struggled to bring his family to New Zealand and worked as a cleaner and taxi driver in that time. Before fleeing his homeland of Eritrea to the neighbouring country of Sudan he was a journalist and teacher. Reporters Without Borders ranked the media environment in Eritrea at the very bottom on a list of 180 countries. In Sudan he worked for a radio station advocating for human rights back in Eritrea.

“We’re all hard workers. You don’t get a benefit. I don’t think there’s even one single African country who gives a benefit, so people work hard to survive... So when you get here, you feel shame when you get money without working for it.”

Merhawi says he feels free when he works and can pay tax to contribute to society.

Order form for the book Blooming Lotus (downloads a pdf)