I don’t often hear things that genuinely surprise me, but a talk I heard at the weekend’s ‘Impact Summit’ was an exception. A young man, Bariz, told the story of how, as an Afghan refugee, he had grown up in New Zealand feeling very out of place (he did not talk about the casual racism that we now know that refugees, migrants, Māori and Pasifika face on a daily basis, but it was implied). As a young man he travelled to Afghanistan to see whether a visit ‘home’ would provide him with the sense of belonging he craved.
While he faced significant doubt and perhaps even depression in Aotearoa, he found in Afghanistan people that, despite 40 years of war, faced life with optimism and cheer. He was amazed at the resilience of these people who had nothing, owned nothing, often slept on the streets but faced life with hope that things would get better.
Instead of being depressed at what he found, what he saw gave him inspiration. We have so much in New Zealand – surely we can all live well and happily? He became an engineering student and is currently President of the Muslim Students Association at Canterbury University.
My surprise at his story was that, generally speaking, people take their own passions and motivation to countries like Afghanistan, not import them back into New Zealand. This was a powerful thing for me, and a reminder that capitalist countries, however lovely, leave people behind in ways that perhaps do not happen in places with a focus on community and survival.
The story does not end there. After the Christchurch Mosque attacks Bariz and Saba (who are partners) decided to honour the 51 dead by helping 51 Afghans into micro-businesses (food stalls, veges, sewing clothes etc). They have raised $20,000 on Give a Little (the page is now closed) and intend to set up 51 businesses every two years.
He has found in himself, he says, a real passion for working with those who do not have the same advantages as himself, and it has changed his life. This bit does not surprise me. Doing good things for/ with others, which can be risky – the road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that – can nonetheless be highly rewarding for people and is, I think, good for the soul (whatever that is).
They are looking to repeat the micro-business model every two years, but I expect that it will develop and change focus, as these things tend to do.
Another presentation was by Alanna Chapman of the wine company 27 seconds, which is using a social enterprise model to give away all the firm’s profits to end human trafficking and sex slavery in a number of countries. It is a pretty inspiring model also.
What I was thinking about while listening to these people was that, while their motivation came from things they saw in other countries, both these interventions could equally be used in New Zealand. There are in fact a number of organisations supporting microbusinesses, often with a focus on helping young people with disabilities or mental illness.
New Zealand’s record on human trafficking is very problematic, and indeed there is no clear definition of what it is. Thai sex workers in Auckland? Indian immigrants working 60 hours and paid for 30 at minimum wage? Child labour in Chinese factories? New Zealand can also be said to contribute to worker coercion by tying work visas to a particular employer, thus locking workers in to what might be (and frequently is) exploitative conditions. We have no Modern Slavery Act in New Zealand, unlike the UK and Australia – the lasw is weak and murky.
Reflecting on the international work being taken up by young people through enterprise or other models, should also focus the spotlight back onto NZ as a country and our own shortcomings. Ensuring that our migrant and refugee families are free of the casual racism endemic in our society would be a great start and would not cost a cent. Ensuring that all workers are free of coercion and properly paid would be a fine second step.
Perhaps the answer to all these questions is in the young people who are beginning to have an impact on how we conduct our lives socially, economically, sustainably and ethically. They are actually out there doing these programmes and modelling them to young people as options for action. This was a university event and pretty middle class – it would be good to see such ideas reach those in more deprived communities too.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.