Aimie Cronin talks to Mina Khadim Hus­sain and Mitchell Pham about find­ing shel­ter in New Zealand as refugees

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Mina Khadim Hus­sain had been study­ing English for two months. Her fa­ther in­sisted she learn the lan­guage, telling his trusted only daugh­ter he be­lieved she could be more than both his sons if she wanted, that she could do any­thing. She went to classes at the learn­ing cen­tre where the fam­ily lived, in Quetta, Pakistan. She had be­gun to learn the al­pha­bet and some ba­sic sen­tences.

On March 12, 2013, she was asked to stand up and give a speech in front of her class. The topic was “mother”, and Mina re­mem­bers stand­ing up and say­ing: “Mother is a gift from God, mother is kind.” She re­mem­bers sit­ting down and see­ing her cousin at the door, “look­ing so sad”. She went to him. “Your fa­ther has been killed,” he said. She had just spo­ken to her fa­ther on the phone. She re­mem­bers the walk home, turn­ing the cor­ner to see her house up on the hill, see­ing cars crowded in front of it. She re­mem­bers drop­ping her books and run­ning in­side where ev­ery­one was cry­ing but no one would tell her why. She re­mem­bers find­ing her mum, Zakia, ask­ing her, “What is go­ing on?” and Zakia say­ing, “They are telling me some­thing I can­not be­lieve.”

Mina’s fa­ther, Khadim Hus­sain, had been shot while work­ing as a man­ager in the mines in Mach, about three hours away by train from Quetta. The fam­ily had moved from their home in Afghanistan to Pakistan, be­cause at the time it was safe, but vi­o­lence had stub­bornly fol­lowed them. Just one month be­fore her fa­ther’s death, a bomb blast about 3km from their home had killed 150 peo­ple. Khadim had talked about ap­ply­ing for refugee sta­tus, about want­ing to move his fam­ily some­where that could boast en­dur­ing safety, but he was earn­ing good money and they knew their plight would be far, far down the list. When he died, the sit­u­a­tion changed dra­mat­i­cally. Zakia was un­able to work and had three chil­dren to feed.

The once rel­a­tively pros­per­ous fam­ily re­lied on hand­outs from char­i­ties and ex­tended fam­ily. It went on like this for 18 months be­fore they were in­formed by the United Na­tions’ refugee body, UNHCR, that in eight days they would be mov­ing to New Zealand. The mo­ment they found out, they looked at each other and Mina said, “Where is New Zealand?” But it didn’t mat­ter where it was, they were al­ready lost.

“We didn’t want to study when our fa­ther died,” says Mina, “we didn’t want to do any­thing, we couldn’t think.”

The kids sat like owls in the cor­ners of their class­rooms and for the long­est time had no idea what was be­ing said around them.

Since the day she learned of her fa­ther’s death, Mina never went back to the English lan­guage classes and says she barely re­mem­bered her ABCs, but she spoke more than the rest of her fam­ily.

It has been three years since Mina, now 19, ar­rived to New Zealand with her mother and two younger broth­ers, Qu­drat­ul­lah, now 15, and Rah­mat­ul­lah, now 13. They ar­rived with bags stuffed full of clothes and gold-coloured cush­ions and some mats for the floor, to a mod­est Hous­ing New Zealand brick-and-tile in Fair­field, Hamil­ton, that had been po­litely dec­o­rated with couches and beds. “I was like, what the heck?” says Mina, who was used to sleep­ing on the floor. “I asked Mum, ‘How can we stay here?”’ Her mother calmly replied, “It is okay, we are start­ing a new life, we have to build ev­ery­thing again.” And then Zakia sat down on one of those mats and be­gan to cry. She barely stopped cry­ing for two years.

One day, her daugh­ter told her that was enough. “No,” said Zakia, “He was my part­ner, you can’t feel the pain.” She went to the doc­tor over and over and suf­fered headaches, all re­lated to stress. Slowly her tears be­gan to set­tle, only to erupt if any­one spoke about her hus­band. “Mum cries if you talk about it,” says Rah­mat­ul­lah, “so we just bot­tle it up. You just have to deal with it, it’s just life.”

A sweet, ar­tic­u­late kid with big dreams, he says fam­ily to him means “pretty much ev­ery­thing, to be hon­est. I mean, they are my life, they are my fu­ture, that’s just how it is.” He says he feels part of a wider fam­ily, too. He used to be told “go back to your coun­try” by “al­most ev­ery­body” at his pri­mary school, but now he is at in­ter­me­di­ate and his class­room feels like a fam­ily. “They act nor­mal to me, like I am from this coun­try,” he says, and he reels off nick­names he and his friends have for each other and games they play at lunchtime.

THE FAM­ILY agrees that New Zealand is home, that they don’t feel lost any­more. De­spite all of them ex­pe­ri­enc­ing racism in the neigh­bour­hood — be­ing called ter­ror­ists, that they don’t be­long, Mina hav­ing boys try and pull off her hi­jab as she walks down her street, the car win­dow and Mina’s bed­room win­dow be­ing smashed, break-ins, peo­ple tap­ping on their win­dows late at night and con­sum­ing them with a fa­mil­iar sense of dread. De­spite all that for the most part they feel safe here, able to imag­ine a long life ahead to­gether. “It’s okay when you don’t have food,” says Mina, “it’s okay when you don’t have money. If you have your fam­ily, that is all you need, hon­estly.”

There is a way to go with their re­set­tle­ment. They want to live in a street where they can walk freely with­out cen­sure and, some­where on a long wait­ing list with Hous­ing New Zealand, their case re­sides. Mina aims to study busi­ness at univer­sity next year but wor­ries her English will not be up to scratch, she is strug­gling to find part time work; Zakia is un­able to drive and her English is ba­sic, so Mina is left to take care of the needs of the en­tire fam­ily, which some­times im­pacts on her abil­ity to study and work. De­spite feel­ing part of the wider Kiwi fam­ily, none of the kids have had friends to visit out­side of the Afghan com­mu­nity. They say they feel safe here, they feel grate­ful, but their in­te­gra­tion into the com­mu­nity has a way to go.

“In­te­gra­tion is some­thing that takes a very long time,” says Jo de Lisle, man­ager at English Lan­guage Part­ners Waikato, an or­gan­i­sa­tion of­fer­ing English lan­guage skills and so­cial sup­port to refugees and mi­grants. When refugee fam­i­lies make mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions, she says it is of­ten with the vol­un­teers who reach out to help them through or­gan­i­sa­tions like English Part­ners, or the Red Cross. It’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to re­mem­ber that “refugees don’t come here be­cause they want to, they come here be­cause they have to, and they have fam­ily they have left be­hind, peo­ple they worry and won­der about which makes in­te­gra­tion more dif­fi­cult be­cause their mind is some­where else.

“The whole na­ture of be­ing a refugee is trauma, they are vic­tims of forced mi­gra­tion. A lot of them leave their homes with noth­ing. Most refugees have got a story about some­body be­ing killed — of­ten a lot of some­bod­ies.”

WHEN MITCHELL Pham ar­rived in New Zealand on Au­gust 24, 1985, he was 13 and alone. He re­mem­bers it was around 7C, a cold he had never known be­fore, and there was a bus wait­ing to take him to the Man­gere Refugee Re­set­tle­ment Cen­tre. He re­mem­bers look­ing out the win­dow think­ing, “Where are the peo­ple?” He had just spent close to two years in refugee camps, where the last one he was in with 22,000 peo­ple was over­crowded and un­der-

It’s okay when you don’t have food, it’s okay when you don’t have money. If you have your fam­ily, that is all you need, hon­estly.

Mina Khadim Hus­sain (above)

sani­tised. As soon as he ar­rived in Auck­land, he be­gan searching for all of his fam­ily who, he hoped, were still alive in Viet­nam.

The Pham fam­ily, mother Hoa Thuy Dang, fa­ther Nghi Dinh Pham and their three chil­dren Mitchell, Tru­man and Hannah, had tried to es­cape twice be­fore be­cause of eco­nomic hard­ship af­ter the Viet­nam war. Both times they had been ar­rested and im­pris­oned, when Mitchell was 8 and 10. His par­ents, pan­icked by the re­al­ity that their old­est son faced army con­scrip­tion if he stayed, could af­ford to send only Mitchell on the third es­cape at­tempt. His mother tried to be brave, telling him he was go­ing on a va­ca­tion, but he says he will never for­get the look on her face as she said good­bye. “I knew then what was hap­pen­ing, but we couldn’t talk about it.”

The big­gest fear a refugee has in the camps is the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing stuck there.

His jour­ney to New Zealand is un­fath­omable, prob­a­bly, to any­one but a refugee. It in­volves the es­cape, a boat chase, be­ing shot at by coast guards, ex­haust­ing all food and wa­ter on the boat, be­ing stranded in the ocean, a cruise ship pass­ing by only paus­ing to take pic­tures, fi­nally be­ing picked up by a sup­ply ship and dropped to the near­est UN refugee camp in In­done­sia.

He ar­rived full of grat­i­tude to be alive but soon learned there were a lot of peo­ple in the camps who had been there for more than 10 years, wait­ing. “The big­gest fear a refugee has

in the camps is the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing stuck there,” he says. He had no one to look out for his health and safety, so he made sure he queued early for food, that he boiled his wa­ter to stay healthy, and he learned English fast. He was picked up by the UN and be­came part of the teach­ing staff when he was 12 years old.

He had lived a big life by the time he ar­rived in this coun­try. Sent to live with vol­un­teer fam­i­lies for six months at a time, he de­scribes them as kind and well in­ten­tioned, but ill-equipped to help him nav­i­gate his trauma, his on­go­ing search for fam­ily, this for­eign coun­try and all of the ups and downs of nor­mal teenage­hood. He be­gan flat­ting in­de­pen­dently at 16.

“Look­ing for my fam­ily was my pri­or­ity,” he says of those early years in New Zealand. “I re­mem­ber re­ally, re­ally bad days when I thought I would never see them again. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘How long do I keep try­ing, will I still be try­ing when I am 50?”’

It took five years from the time he said good­bye to his fam­ily to the time he re­con­nected with them through let­ters. It took 13 years be­fore he was able to raise the money to get back and see their faces again. Two things struck him on that visit. The first was the cul­ture shock he ex­pe­ri­enced upon re-en­ter­ing Viet­nam. “But the most amaz­ing thing was that my fam­ily treated me like I never left, like I went on a long va­ca­tion and came back af­ter the sum­mer hol­i­days, just like that. It hit me very clearly that a fam­ily can sur­vive all time and dis­tance. It gave me a very firm per­spec­tive about what fam­ily means: a per­ma­nent un­con­di­tional bond that can sur­vive across time and dis­tance and I think it is the only thing that is truly valu­able over all of the ma­te­rial things. Once you have a full con­nec­tion with your fam­ily you feel com­plete — ev­ery­thing else doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.”

Now 46 and mar­ried to a New Zealan­der with two daugh­ters, Mitchell’s life is full with fam­ily. His brother and sis­ter have mi­grated to New Zealand and he joy­fully re­ports he sees them ev­ery week.

It has been in­ter­est­ing, he says, to shift the sense of grav­ity from Viet­nam to New Zealand, which the ma­jor­ity of his fam­ily now calls home. His par­ents are now “the re­mote con­nec­tion” he was for all those years.

Hoa Thuy Dang and Nghi Dinh Pham have no hope of ever be­ing able to join their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren per­ma­nently in New Zealand. When Mitchell learned his fam­ily were alive in Viet­nam, he ap­plied for a visa and was given two years to raise the money for their en­try. While he was study­ing busi­ness full time at univer­sity, he worked two part-time jobs. He couldn’t raise the money in time. “You’re only given the chance to get the visa once in your life,” he says. Be­cause of his own ex­pe­ri­ence, he co-founded an or­gan­i­sa­tion called the Auck­land Refugee Fam­ily Trust, where funds are raised to help fam­i­lies who are run­ning out of time, to top up the rest of the money they have raised to get their fam­i­lies here. Mitchell’s is one of the few CVs that war­rants a sec­ond page, such is the ex­tent of his work as a busi­ness en­tre­pre­neur, tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tor and in­dus­try leader.

He says he reached this point with a sim­i­lar mind­set to many refugees he has known: “When you get here you just keep go­ing, be­cause that is all you know, it’s not even a con­scious thing.”

In May 1988, he was given New Zealand cit­i­zen­ship, de­scrib­ing it as an amaz­ing mo­ment in his life. Thirty years later, in June 2018, he re­ceived the World Class New Zealand award for his con­tri­bu­tion to tech­nol­ogy and New Zealand-Asia re­la­tions.

“For me,” he says, “the cir­cle is com­plete.”

Once you have a full con­nec­tion with your fam­ily you feel com­plete — ev­ery­thing else doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.

Mitchell Pham

Mitchell Pham.

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