Five years on from arrival most refugees are no longer on a benefit, many have jobs, a good grasp of English and are doing well with their studies. Having escaped sectarian conflicts, civil war, political turmoil and years of uncertainty in makeshift refugee camps - the 750 refugees who arrive each year, then face a whole new journey navigating our foreign land. Despite public and political concerns in certain camps at the additional costs of increasing the quota to 1000 from 2018, figures from Immigration New Zealand (INZ) released to the Herald under the Official Information Act showed refugees quickly achieved independence.
How well refugees settle
The INZ dashboard, which illustrates how its resettlement programme is tracking, showed less than 20 per cent were on a benefit five years on; 33 - 37 per cent were employed; with the remainder studying or being supported by family.
What we are looking for is over ten years to have 48 or 52 per cent in employment, we are tracking towards that goal.
The Ministry of Social Development showed that of those who arrived in the last five years, only 1018 [27 per cent] were still on one of the following benefits: Emergency benefit, jobseeker support, supported living payment or sole parent support. INZ national manager refugee division Andrew Lockhart said that was expected given the challenges refugees faced learning a new language, culture and way of living. "What we are looking for is over ten years to have 48 or 52 per cent in employment, we are tracking towards that goal."
ARRIVING IN NEW ZEALAND
Is this real? Can I really get through the day without worrying if my children are still going to be alive?
On arrival, refugees who have fled conflicts and unrest from countries including Syria, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran, are housed and given a six-week orientation programme at Mangere's Refugee Resettlement Centre. Centre manager Maria Hayward said they experienced a whole array of emotions in those first few days. "Anxiety; fear that is residual from years of living in fear ... relief, happiness, joy. "In the mix is just a sort of stunned feeling; 'Is this real? Can I really get through the day without worrying if my children are still going to be alive?'" Over time Hayward said they visibly relaxed and became more trusting and even daring. "What most surprises me is how much joy and laughter and friendship occurs during those six weeks."
Making New Zealand home
From the resettlement centre refugees were then moved into their own home, with friends or family, in a private rental or by Housing New Zealand. In the weeks and years that followed they improved their English, went to school and sought employment. Six months on around three quarters were on a benefit, but up to 10 per cent had a job by nine months. At two years there was a marked drop in those on a benefit, down to 31.9 - 47.4 per cent, and an increase in paid employment up to 17.7 - 28.3 per cent. At five years 33.1 - 37.2 per cent were in a job and only 14.1 - 18.3 per cent were on a benefit.
We call our service refugees as survivors for a very good reason, because we believe they have the resilience to do this resettlement process successfully.
At school refugee children did better than their peers - 81 per cent of those at school here for more than five years in 2014 achieved Level Two NCEA - compared with 77 per cent for all others. For adult learners - five years on from arrival - 30 to 40 per cent achieved a Level Two NZQA qualification - which INZ said indicated a good level of English. Ann Hood, CEO of Refugees as Survivors New Zealand, the mental health service for refugees, said the statistics showed refugees did well despite traumatic backgrounds which included certain atrocities; "through to just the trauma of having to escape from your country and being very uncertain where you are going to end up". She said this trauma could manifest itself in a number of ways, including sleep disturbances, anxiety and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But she said with support refugees were able to do well and they were "absolutely determined". "We call our service refugees as survivors for a very good reason, because we believe they have the resilience to do this resettlement process successfully."
Professor of Diversity at AUT University Edwina Pio said refugees worked hard to achieve, but were at times misunderstood, overlooked or, at worst, exploited. She's written a report titled Powerfully compassionate disruptors: Refugees and immigrant millennials at work in New Zealand
which looks at their work experiences. "Work is one of the single most important needs of RIM [refugee and immigrant millennials], however, many are unemployed, underemployed or engaged in unpaid family care work and seem to be over-represented in low paying positions."
The next thing is always their children, hopes they will have a normal life with education and employment.
Maria Hayward said when refugees first arrived they had simple dreams, starting with just being alive. But as they felt more secure, their focus shifted to those they'd left behind and to the future of their children. "The next thing is always their children, hopes they will have a normal life with education and employment." Hayward said an estimated 80 per cent wanted to do "helping jobs" such as nursing, teaching, social work and justice. "Nearly every single refugee coming to New Zealand says; 'we want to give back to this country that has offered us a home. The way we will do that is to be good citizens, try our very best and make sure our children do well and give back."
Fleeing an Islamic State stronghold
As he fled in his car through the streets of the Iraqi capital, bullets ricocheting around him on his way to work, Zaid Al-Jarrah came to the reluctant realisation it was time to leave. In 2009 the communications engineer who'd trained and worked in Europe was working for a government department when he was threatened by militia. "I just try to run away from them, they shoot my car and I didn't stop driving until I reached one of the checkpoints and the other car just disappeared." His wife, Wagha Abdulraheem Al-Salihi, who was at home with their baby, narrowly missed being in the October 2009 bombings outside the Ministry of Justice which killed 155 people, including many children, injuring hundreds of others.
Al-Jarrah wanted to help rebuild his country, which has been plagued by sectarian violence since the US-led ousting of then President Saddam Hussein in 2003 - but staying was no longer a choice. In 2010 the couple fled with their baby, Nisreen Zaid, and toddler, Fahad Zaid, seeking asylum in Cairo, Egypt. Life in the Egyptian capital was "hard", as refugees they had no right to work and no regular source of income.
We always hoped things would pass and everything would go better - but everything got worse - the problems didn't end.
In 2015 they were relocated here. Today Al-Jarrah is half-way a two-year Masters, Al-Salihi continues to improve her English and dreams of getting a job once youngest, Layan, 2, goes to school. His eldest two speak English with only the slightest hint of an accent. Fahad hoped to become a building engineer, Nisreen, a dentist. While Al-Jarrah was happy and secure with life here, he found it hard thinking of his relatives scattered across the globe. "We always hoped things would pass and everything would go better - but everything got worse - the problems didn't end."
His parents and one brother lived in Baghdad, the other floated between the Iraqi capital and Egypt. His sister-in-law had fled Mosul - a key battleground between jihadist group Islamic State and the Iraqi government - for Turkey. His brother-in-law was in Canada. As a student in New Zealand it was still sometimes a struggle to make ends meet - but Al-Jarrah was optimistic. "Every time you start again is hard, but I hope after the first few years we will be in a better situation."
Studying amid turmoil
As the violence began to seep outside of Syria's main cities and the presence of the jihadist group Islamic State began to grow, Ludy Chakhto remained determined to graduate before she fled for good. In 2013, two years after the start of the civil war which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, the 24-year-old was in her final year of an English Literature course at a University in Deir Ezzor - 450km north of the capital Damascus. Chakhto was initially isolated from the worst of the civil unrest. "When I noticed things changing, I tried to hide it from my parents because I wanted to continue with my studies." However, as the situation worsened, fighting escalated and news of kidnappings at the hands of Isis in northern Syria grew more frequent, Chakhto said her family fled, first to Iraq.
They returned to Syria in mid-2013, for Chakhto to finish her final exams, before finally fleeing to Lebanon at the end of that year. In early 2015, they relocated to New Zealand. Chakhto who speaks English, Assyrian and Arabic, completed a Graduate Diploma in Arts in Interpreting at AUT and today works with refugees going through the resettlement centre. She is happy in New Zealand, but often finds it hard to think of Syria. "I sometimes feel guilty we are here and others are still living there. "Because not all have the opportunity to leave the country like I did and start a new life."
When I noticed things changing, I tried to hide it from my parents because I wanted to continue with my studies.