Wellington Cathedral of St Paul was again ringing with the colours, sights and sounds of the nations, as high commissioners, government ministers, former refugees and representatives of the Commonwealth’s many nations here in New Zealand gathered for the national observance of Commonwealth Day. This was the 41st Commonwealth Day, an annual event initiated by the Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1977, during which the 53 Commonwealth nations celebration our common future.
At this year’s observance, our own Rev Emile Pacifique, pastor of the Journey Group Rwandan Fellowship, shared his experiences coming to New Zealand as a refugee from Rwanda, and his address is shared here.
Some of the questions people ask to get to know me better are: “Where do you come from originally?” I reply, “Rwanda, East Africa.” “Oh, South Africa!” they say. “No, East Africa.” I reply. They may ask again: “Why did you come to New Zealand?” to which I reply, “I came as a refugee a few years ago.” Then they may ask again, “Why did you choose to come to New Zealand?” Well, if this is your question too, you are about to get the answer tonight!
According to United Nations’ recent statistics, the number of people on the move after they have been forced from their homes has reached a record high of 65.6 million. Out of these, registered refugees are 22.5 million, over half of whom are children under 18 years old. There are approximately 11 million children and young persons on the move too, as refugees.
Some of the lessons I learned in my journey as a former refugee are as follows, and they are debatable:
- Peace is a rare commodity that people seek to live and flourish; they will pay any price to access it because it is a basic need.
- War causes absence of peace, but the absence of war is not necessarily the presence of peace.
- Everybody can make a difference in responding to the needs of refugees.
In 1996, my family and I were living as refugees in East Africa, after moving out of another country, which was our first country of refuge. Both countries became too difficult for us to live in. Police crackdowns on refugees, and refugees’ random arrests and imprisonment were happening day and night, over a very long time. The country was not at war, but there was no peace, we were insecure. Instead of feeling even safer and protected when police are around, we felt panic. If refugees are not there, by transference, it is their countrymen who become the target.
Locals can be nice and helpful, if they are not afraid of being accused of harbouring “illegal immigrants.”
Refugees are people who have suffered many losses. They are interesting species though! They live day-by-day. They do not plan anything, because they do not know where they will be tomorrow. If there is any plan at all, it is about, how to get out of here and where else to go? Day-by-day, they are battling anxiety, without the help of a health professional.
Thank God the planet still has some compassionate states, civil societies and individuals. In our case, New Zealand, through their relationship with UNHCR, came to our rescue in 1998, when we were in great distress. I had spent most of my weekdays by the UNHCR office gate, asking for an alternative option for my family and I.
We did not choose New Zealand. New Zealand chose us. They picked my family and I up. A stamp of residence visa at the port of entry meant, for us, that the refugee life and its stigma we endured in the previous four years had now become a thing of the past. Thank, you New Zealand!
But, more was to come: Five years later, some family members got reunited with us. What was a one-family community, gradually became a nine-family community based here in Wellington. There exist also about eleven families in Palmerston North and Auckland. It is exciting!
We have some success stories to tell; people who own a house, have achieved a qualification, and have a stable job and income.
However, we need more reunifications, which are now very difficult to access, to achieve a more sustainable community.
In this business of building communities and respond to the needs of people I am always encouraged by Jesus’ response to the Pharisee lawyer who tested him about what was the most important thing to do; Jesus said,“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and… love your neighbour as yourself (Matt.22:37-39).