I was a refugee (for a couple of days, in law not fact)

Refugee for a day (or two)

When Mobutu’s tyrannical kleptocracy in Zaire (now again Congo) began to fall apart, when people were desperate because they could not buy medicines or schooling for their children, the parachute regiment captured the airport and marched into Kinshasa. They and many of the civilian population  began to loot the city, while Mobutu’s Presidential Guard fought back. After a day or two the French and Belgians sent their own paratroops to oversee the evacuation of foreigners. The British (this was before we became NZ citizens) embassy arranged for Brits to go on a South African refugee plane that was able to land at the airport after it had been recaptured. Our passports were in a Zairean government office to get residence visas. So we traveled on temporary refugee papers issued by the embassy.

In just hours we were separated from colleagues and friends, not knowing nor able to find out what had happened to them. But fearing the worst. We shared some of the fear, shock and pain of leaving “home” that real refugees feel, but only some, because we had been people with two homes, and we still had resources of citizenship to protect us and open possibilities of a new life to us.1

img_3212Real refugees

We’ve also experienced life in a refugee camp, teaching courses on two occasions in a camp on the Thai-Burma border. During those months we saw second hand what it is like to be a real refugee. We heard stories of horrific experiences at the hands of the government forces. We met students who had never experienced a free life outside the wire boundaries of the camp. People with no papers (except the document that entitles them to a small food ration) and little hope.

Because these, real, refugees are members of an ethnic minority at war with the national government many of them do not seek UN refugee status, preferring to dream of the day when they can return home and rebuild. But for many after all that time the grinding dullness of life on the edge, whose purpose is merely to wait, prompts them to seek “resettlement” (see Resettlement and repatriation seem such gentle words). This means giving up the old hope (of return home to live with dignity in peace) and making tenuous ties to family and friends who make us who we are. Yet it offers a different hope: a new life. That’s what it means to be a refugee, to have lost all hope in your old life, and to seek a new one.

Land of opportunity

In the colonial period Europeans came to New Zealand seeking a new life, in a land of opportunity. They forged their new lives usually successfully, often at the expense (sometimes at the barrel of a gun, directly through land confiscations, dubious “deals”, or less directly) of the Maori who already inhabited the land. But by and large New Zealand now is a peaceful land, underpopulated full of wide open spaces. We have low unemployment and because of that history opportunities for trade and industry that are surprising in a place so far from anywhere. We even have a record of race relations that is less bad than many similar places.

How come we do not welcome more refugees? Refugees are people with “get up and go” both literally and metaphorically. They have drive and initiative. They are good at looking after themselves. Usually they are unusually socially responsible. With all that space and all those opportunities, why do we not welcome more new New Zealanders?

  1. We even had the hope of returning soon. For we assumed that Mobutu would leave or be killed and the coup would install a new (and therefore better) government. In fact two decades of civil wars have made Congo a byword. []