Herald on Sunday
Essentially, they build better lives
When New Zealand went into lockdown, critical workers stepped up to the frontline. Some of them were former refugees. Qiuyi Tan spoke to three of them to mark World Refugee Day.
‘It’s like . . . rock and roll’
Rose Bishnu Pradhan knew nothing about New Zealand when she chose it for her new home.
Her family left Bhutan when she was 8, part of a wave of about 100,000 refugees who have fled discrimination against people of Nepali descent since 1991.
She spent the next 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, where they lived in bamboo huts and were given weekly rations of rice and vegetables.
She married and had two children in those years, but wanted more for their lives.
When the UN refugee agency started the process of resettling people in her camp, she applied.
She was offered New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Australia, the US. Her choice sprang to mind and to this day, she doesn’t know why she chose Aotearoa.
“My dad said ‘Don’t apply, don’t go anywhere, I want to die here’,” she recalls, “I didn’t listen.”
Her parents were worried about her coming alone so they did the same, and by 2010, the Pradhans found themselves in Nelson.
The same inexplicable gut feeling that brought her to New Zealand told her she wanted to be a truck driver.
She recalls the moment she found her calling. She was driving behind a truck and it gave way to her, but she stayed behind, fascinated.
Today, the 37-year-old is one of less than a handful of female truck drivers at the Nelson branch of logistics company TNL.
“When I go to work I’m smaller and shorter than all of them.”
The mother of two is 1.6m, holds a Class 5 licence and drives twotrailer, 23m-long mammoths, among other trucks. She loves driving, and her favourite thing in the world is changing gears.
“It’s hard to explain for me. I feel like, you know, rock and roll.”
Going out every day not knowing who she will meet, where it will take her, and enjoying the views.
“I get tired at the end of the day but when I jump in the truck and start to drive, I forget everything.”
She worked through lockdown last year and loved it.
“I delivered food to FourSquare, Countdown, New World. That’s my favourite thing, feeding people (at a time of need) makes me happy and proud.”
She works 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week, and recently bought her own home. Her daughter is 16, and her 18-year-old son is at university in Wellington. The whole family is proud of her, employee of the month at TNL.
“My parents now say thank you to me, for choosing New Zealand.”
Learning the road code and passing the driving tests in a foreign language was hard. She did all that as a single parent after separating from her husband in 2011, one year after they arrived in New Zealand — foreigners navigating a new world.
But she was interested in trucks and had made up her mind.
“I have to do this, I can do this. You have to think that all the time.”
‘I’m looking for a job. Any job.’
In 2004, an injured Paul Kumbuka fled a hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda with the clothes on his back and US$10 in his pocket.
He was 20, a political science student and human rights activist, who had been arrested and tortured for more than two weeks before the authorities sent him to hospital. They thought he would die from his injuries after a fellow detainee did not survive.
A friend helped Kumbuka escape the hospital and gave him money.
He crossed one of the African Great Lakes, Kivu, on a boat, walked, and hitched rides on the backs of trucks for days before crossing the border illegally. “I had no ID, no visa, no passport, nothing.”
He landed in Kampala, where he spent nine years as a refugee before coming to New Zealand with his daughter in 2014, joining his wife who had arrived in Hamilton a few years earlier on the Refugee Quota programme.
He had NGO experience in Uganda but had trouble finding work in a new country.
“I was searching for a job every day. Online, moving door to door.”
The search brought him to the Hamilton office of HealthCare NZ, a five-minute walk from his home.
“I went to reception and said, ‘I’m looking for a job’. They asked me, ‘What kind of job?’
“I said, any job.”
He filled in an application form and prayed, “Please God, I want this job, I want to help the community,” he recalls.
As he walked home that morning, his phone rang. It was HealthCare NZ and the person on the line said they had a job for him. “I said, are you joking?”
The interview took place that morning, and he started work two weeks later as a community support worker, helping people with serious illness or disabilities with daily life: shopping, showering, toileting, meals, cleaning and tidying.
Now 38 and a father-of-two, Kumbuka worked through New Zealand’s first and subsequent Covid lockdowns.
One of his young clients at the time was special to him, he said.
“We were like friends, brothers. I could understand him, he could understand me, we would share stories, jokes.”
The young man died during lockdown.
“Sometimes I don’t even go on leave because I’m scared if I go away . . . What happens if they miss their medication, their lunch? If they don’t have someone to put them on the chair or wake them up?”
Kumbuka has a second job helping newly arrived refugee families settle in New Zealand as a caseworker at the Red Cross. Would he work during the next lockdown, if there is one? “Of course I will work.
“I am serving New Zealand, supporting all the ethnicities, not only Kiwi, not only refugees. This makes me happy.”
‘I inject people with radioactivity’
Sabira Nouri had always wanted to be a doctor, but chose nursing to stay close to family in Hamilton.
The 31-year-old nurse at the Waikato Hospital’s radiology department worked through lockdown last year, isolating herself from her family to keep everyone safe.
She lives on her own and preCovid, saw her parents and siblings very often. Alert level 4 meant they were in separate bubbles, and she did not want to put them at risk.
“That made it quite lonely.”
Being a cancer survivor herself added to the stress of working in hospital during a pandemic.
“It wasn’t that bad, I was lucky to work in an area where I wasn’t the first responder.”
Nouri looks after patients who come in for CT and nuclear medicine scans.
“We inject radioactivity into the patient’s body, basically. It sounds really scary but they’re very safe levels.”
Gamma cameras then scan the patient’s body looking for the radioisotopes, which light up cancer cells.
Nouri’s parents and grandparents fled Afghanistan and the SovietAfghan war to Pakistan, where she and her five siblings were born. They moved to Iran when she was 9, where they lived invisibly as illegal immigrants.
Other children went to school, but Nouri and her siblings stayed home.
“We lived in fear of being deported at any minute.”
She was 15 when her family was given a new life in Aotearoa. She lapped up school and earned her nursing degree in Hamilton 10 years later.
She already spoke Dari, Pashto, Urdu and Farsi and learning a fifth language — English — wasn’t a problem.
In nuclear medicine, many of her patients have had cancer or are facing a new cancer diagnosis.
“I can see their worries, how stressed, how terrified they are, not knowing what could happen. I’ve been there as a person.”
Being able to help someone in need keeps her going. “It reminds me of how desperate we once were.”
She does not mark World Refugee Day.
“I was a refugee but I don’t want to constantly think about it.”
She feels both privileged and guilty to be given her life in New Zealand, knowing there are millions out there who do not have a place to call home.
At least 79.5 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes at the end of 2019, according to United Nations figures.
Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18.
“No one wants to be a refugee, sometimes I almost feel ashamed to be one.”
The refugee label doesn’t always come with a good rep, she says, having spent years fighting the negative stereotype.
“There’s the mindset that refugees just come here, live on the benefit, don’t learn the language, don’t fit in society that well.”
In hard times, she relies on family and her faith.
“The Quran says with every hardship comes ease, so everything happens for a reason.”
A refugee is just another human being, she says, “Like you. Who’ve had a tough life, who had to leave their home country.
“They’re just another human being seeking a better life.”