To the Syrians who arrived in New Zealand last week, I greet you with a warm “Marhaba” – you are all welcome in Aoteroa!
Your journey has been long. Some of you will have not seen your country for nearly five years, during which time a crowded refugee camp in a foreign land has been the closest thing you’ve had to a home. Your conditions have been cramped and dirty. Your dignity has suffered as you have been denied the opportunity to work for a living and have had to rely on UN rations. It has been years since you have not faced a long queue to go to the toilet.
Without adequate shelter, you have endured scorching summer heat and fierce winter storms. The warmth of the New Zealand summer is a blessing to you, but you fear for your friends and relatives who are perilously cold this January. Maybe they are in Lebanon, where refugee camp temperatures plummeted to -15 degrees a few weeks ago. They could be in Jordan or Turkey, among the thousands whose makeshift homes have been destroyed by winter winds or flooded by cold rains. Or, maybe, you have loved ones in Eastern Europe; desperately close to a welcoming refuge, but trapped in an icy camp as politicians debate about which direction their journeys may continue.
Indeed, the politicians of the world have been letting your people down as you try to flee, just as they have stood by for years and argued as your homeland has been torn to pieces. I wish I could say otherwise, but as you may have heard by now, New Zealand’s leaders are no better. The welcome they offer you is as icy as the winter your families are enduring. Indeed, they have been reluctant to allow you to come at all. Doubtless, they will try and resist as many of your friends joining you as possible.
Not all New Zealanders will welcome you here either. No, too many of my fellow kiwis are consumed with their own problems and fears. Some will judge you, simply because you are Arab – suspicious of your culture, anxious about your religion, mistrusting of your motives for coming here. But, do not be discouraged, thousands of New Zealanders welcome you here. And with those who do not, please be patient. New Zealand is a long way from the Middle East and all we know about you is the, often warped, perspective we get from the media. It will take time before we get to know and understand you.
Your first home here is a place called Mangere. Good for you – it’s one of the friendliest parts of the country. True, the hospitality you will receive here cannot possibly compare to what you are used to providing visitors in your homeland. Yes, I visited your country in more peaceful times and still cherish the welcome I received – the warmest and most authentic of any place I’ve been to. But, you’ll appreciate South Auckland nonetheless, its cultural richness and working class down-to-earthness make it a great starting point for your life here.
But, times are tough for the people of this area. Economic circumstances have pushed many families into crammed, unhealthy living conditions, not much better from what you’ve experienced in recent times. Many children suffer from poor nutrition and low educational performance that would have appalled you in your pre-war life. So please forgive those locals who see your arrival as a threat to that job or that house which would help them to realize a better future for their children. Their hardship is not on the same scale of what you have suffered, but like you, many in this country find themselves struggling to survive amidst a sea of circumstances well beyond their control.
Many aspects of life here are vastly different from your own and parts our culture may appear extremely odd or even wrong to you. Let no-one demand that you give up your own beliefs. But, at the same time, please do not judge us from your own cultural and religious perspective. You may question our liberal and permissive culture, but it is out of those same values that we welcome you here.
As you grow to understand New Zealand and as New Zealand learns more about you, I have no doubt you can thrive in this faraway land and help make this country a better place. For your own sake, I pray that Syria returns to peace and that you may one day return to your homes and rebuild your lives on the same soil as your ancestors. But, if that is never possible or if you and your children freely choose to adopt Aoteroa as your permanent home, then you are welcome nonetheless.
Kia kaha and salam alaikum. Stay strong and peace be with you.