Starting again in Christchurch

Natnael and Mekdes in Christchurch

It’s been a long journey for Natnael and Mekdes. But today, with their three small children, they’ve finally made it to their new home in Christchurch.

“Thank you,” Mekdes says through tears of happiness as she looks around the house. There's food in the cupboards, a back yard for her children to play in and a comfortable bed for her to rest her head.

“This is beyond our expectations.”

That morning, the family was greeted at the airport by a contingent of Red Cross staff and Refugee Support Volunteers, excited members of the small Eritrean community in Christchurch and a kaumatua performing a pōwhiri.

Refugee Support Volunteer wait to greet former refugees arriving at Christchuch Airport.

Refugee Support Volunteers wait to greet former refugees arriving at Christchurch Airport. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Refugee Support Volunteers wait to greet former refugees arriving at Christchurch Airport. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

There the family were introduced to their Refugee Support Volunteers Bob, Frances and Emma. Following a flurry of hugs and handshakes, they all headed back to Mekdes and Natnael's new home to help them get settled in.

The family is among the first former refugees to arrive in Christchurch via the quota since the earthquakes. The city will now welcome about 20 former refugees every two months.

Natnael and Mekdes do not want to go into much detail about why they fled their home in Eritrea some 15,000 kilometres away but say they have been refugees in Indonesia for about six years.

In Christchurch, they will get a fresh start.

"Nau mai, haere mai."

Natnael shares a hongi at Christchurch airport.

Natnael shares a hongi at Christchurch airport. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Natnael shares a hongi at Christchurch airport. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Making a house a home

Housing New Zealand finds housing for former refugees and New Zealand Red Cross helps to furnish them through donations.

Bob, Frances and Emma worked late into the night to get the family's house ready. They scrubbed the bathroom and kitchen, unpacked donated toys and kitchenware and set up furniture. Bob, with an electric drill, toddler-proofed the kitchen cupboards and made a last-minute dash to the shops for extra supplies. Frances and Emma lovingly made up each of the beds, arranged the cupboards, chose toys for each bedroom and filled the kitchen cupboards with donated food.

"I hope to make them feel as comfortable, as welcome as possible here in New Zealand."

Emma, Frances and Bob get the family's house ready.

Refugee Support Volunteers Emma, Frances and Bob get the family's house ready. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Refugee Support Volunteers Emma, Frances and Bob get the family's house ready. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

“I hope to make them feel as comfortable, as welcome as possible here in New Zealand," Frances says.

"We are setting everything up so that when they come in, everything is ready to go. They have had a rough journey. Hopefully they can get some rest here.”

Frances moved to New Zealand from Ireland and knows what it’s like to be new to the country.

“But I made that choice to come. These people have been forced into it."

Bob, who is from North America, says he became a Refugee Support Volunteer because he wants to give back.

“That experience of being an immigrant here – and how warm and welcoming the community was – I just want to share that and help others.”

Bob was living in Christchurch during the 2011 earthquake, which badly damaged his home.

“Bringing former refugees in again represents a rebirth of the city after the earthquakes. The city is open again; it’s back in business.

“We’re building up again. We’re getting stronger, more resilient. There’s an opportunity to share that with the rest of the world.”

“Bringing former refugees in again represents a rebirth of the city after the earthquakes. The city is open again; it’s back in business."

Bob Bower outside the family's home.

Refugee Support Volunteer, Bob. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Refugee Support Volunteer, Bob. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Over the next three months, Bob, Frances and Emma will meet with the family regularly. They’ll provide them with practical assistance, and there will also be plenty of time for social visits and exploring Christchurch.

“There is a lot of stuff they have to do,” Frances says. “They have to register with WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand), with their GP, do a grocery shop. We need to show them the buses, get a metro card, show them how to read a bus route, and register with pre-school.

“But we also need to make sure they feel welcome and show them around the neighbourhood.

“I’m going to come around in the afternoons and bring the kids to the park or play with them while Mum and Dad have a bit of time out. Mum and Dad haven’t had any time out.”

“They have had a rough journey.
Hopefully they can get some rest here.”

Emma makes up one of the beds.

Refugee Support Volunteer Emma makes up one of the beds. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Refugee Support Volunteer Emma makes up one of the beds. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Looking forward

It’s been almost a week, and some of the new arrivals have gathered at Natnael and Mekdes’ home to catch up over a coffee ceremony known as bunna maflat.

Before arriving in Christchurch, the group spent six weeks together in Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre and now feel like family.

Bunna maflat, or coffee ceremony, at Mekdes and Natnael's home. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Bunna maflat, or coffee ceremony, at Mekdes and Natnael's home. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Today they are looking forward to the future together.

“I am so happy with what we have here in Christchurch,” Natnael says with a smile. “Everything is going so well. It feels so good to be settled."

"Thank you. This is beyond our expectations."

Mekdes cooking Bolognese sauce in her new kitchen. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Mekdes cooking Bolognese sauce in her new kitchen. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

They have been overwhelmed by the support from Bob, Frances and Emma, Natnael says.

“They are very organised. They think about everything before we do and provide us things before we even ask! It’s really nice.”

Natnael is hoping to become a mechanical engineer and has already done a year of study in the field. His goal is to ensure a bright future for his children.

“Now we are here, we need to think about what we want to do. The focus is to study and then we want to think of work. We want our kids to have the best future, so we’re thinking about how to grow.”

"We want our kids to have the best future, so we’re thinking about how to grow.”

Natnael at home.

Natnael at home. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Natnael at home. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Yared, who arrived in New Zealand on his own after spending time as a refugee in Ethiopia, is round at Mekdes and Natnael’s for coffee. He’s already forged a special relationship with his Refugee Support Volunteers.

“I call my volunteers Father and Mother!” Yared laughs. “I feel like they are part of my family.

“They support me very much and give me what I need. We’ve been shopping, they helped me get credit on my phone, they took me around the city and they invited me out to lunch.”

Yared being welcomed at Christchurch Airport.

Yared being welcomed at Christchurch Airport. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Yared being welcomed at Christchurch Airport. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Yared admits he didn’t know much about New Zealand before he arrived – “only sheep and rugby.” Now he’s here, he wants to make the most of his new life.

“I want to study, I want to work. The job I would like to do is welding, construction or truck driving. I also did a course in mechanical engineering and I would like to pursue that in New Zealand.”

“I call my volunteers Father and Mother! I feel like they are part of my family."

Yared with New Zealand Red Cross Settlement Lead, Aklilu. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Yared with New Zealand Red Cross Settlement Lead, Aklilu. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Esayas, who also came on his own from Eritrea via Ethiopia, is happy to already have close friends in the city. He’s also started making plans.

“I need to improve my English. While doing this, I want to do some professional training such as in construction or some vocational training, so that I can work,” he says.

“I’m just really looking towards the future."

“I’m just really looking towards the future."

Esayas, a former refugee from Eritrea.

Esayas wants to start studying and working as soon as he can. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

Esayas wants to start studying and working as soon as he can. Photo: Mary Baines/NZ Red Cross

How you can help

There are plenty of ways you can get involved with former refugees in your community, including by donating goods to help turn houses into homes, becoming a Refugee Support Volunteer or giving a former refugee an employment opportunity.

To find out more about refugee settlement in New Zealand, head to our website.

You can find even more good stories from New Zealand Red Cross here.