When Younis Ahmat Abdallah arrived in New Zealand from a Sudanese refugee camp, he was 12 years old, spoke no English and was, he says, painfully shy. So shy, he pretended to be asleep if people approached him and tried to start a conversation.
"I used to do that a lot because I was embarrassed that I didn't know what people were saying or how to answer them," he recalls, in perfect English with no trace of the shyness that plagued him when he and his family came to live in Māngere seven years ago. "I would just sit with my eyes shut. I felt quite lonely and isolated."
Abdallah, now 19 and a Year 13 student at Māngere College and MIT, is a youth leader at Mixit – a group that specialises in introducing young people from refugee backgrounds to local and migrant youth through creative projects like theatre. He first heard about it when a Mixit representative visited Māngere College, handing out flyers.
"I couldn't read it, but I thought it looked like something I could be interested in," he says. "Then my older brother made friends with someone who spoke the same language and told him about Mixit. He joined first and I kept asking, 'Can I come?' but he said it was his thing. Finally he let me come along."
Last year, Abdallah received an award from the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu Community Board recognising the volunteer work he does with Mixit. This year, he'll finish school and hopes to continue studies at MIT so he can become a builder and actor.
Ask Abdallah where he'd be without Mixit and you can almost see him shudder. It's given him confidence, taught him leadership skills and introduced him to a range of people he felt safe to be himself around because they were having similar experiences.
They're people like fellow youth leaders Kaviesha Abeysinghe, 27, and Munashe Tapfuya, 26, who nod in vigorous agreement as Abdallah talks about the importance of having somewhere he felt safe to express himself. Abeysinghe, from Sri Lanka, has been with Mixit nearly a decade; Tapfuya, from Zimbabwe, around six years.
Both young women say Mixit has given them an opportunity to live richer lives by teaching them skills and ways of looking at the world. When Abeysinghe was desperately unhappy with her chosen career as a scientist, she felt she had the courage and confidence to say it wasn't for her and re-train as a primary school teacher. Tapfuya, too, is taking her life in a fresh direction studying Social and Community Leadership at the University of Auckland.
They wish Mixit programmes were compulsory for world leaders, saying it might give them a greater understanding of the challenges refugees and migrants face before they start formulating policies that will have direct consequences on them.
Started in 2006, Mixit could soon find its services in more demand. The Government has lifted the country's annual refugee quota to 1500, is establishing more settlement centres around the country and cutting from six to five weeks the reception programme at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre (where Abdallah and his family originally spent time).
Mixit founder Wendy Preston, a creative producer and director with more than 30 years experience, says that will mean more young people arriving in New Zealand and needing a safe place to help them adapt to life in a completely new country and culture.
"You can't increase the refugee quota without increasing the 'socialisation agencies' on the ground that can help," she says. Places will needed to be developed where people can come together and make the introduction to a new country and way of life as positive as possible."
But Mixit isn't about to ride into new towns, run a couple of workshops and leave again having promised young people something it can't deliver on. That's the worst thing you can do, says Preston, so it's working with existing groups, so far in Hamilton and, later this year, possibly Christchurch, to help them set up sustainable chapters with support from "the mother ship".
Given the work Mixit does, it's perhaps not surprising that this summer's free theatre show is an outdoor one inspired by Alice in Wonderland. In A Curious Garden is not, says Preston, a version of or adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story but one which tilts it hat toward strangers in a strange land and stars 30 Mixit members.
"There are a lot of parallels to the lived experience of those who come to Mixit," she says. "It's about being somewhere entirely different to what and where you have known and having to adapt to and navigate through a landscape when the language, the customs, the cultural habits and the knowns and the givens and the expectations are different.
"You can take, for example, the Red Queen and say, 'What does that tell us about power?' We're performing in a garden [the Auckland Botanic Gardens] so there's an opportunity to raise some of the very concerns about the environment that young people are raising about the world around them. So, yes it's an existing story but there is so much space within it."
And being brave enough to write their own stories is something Preston wants to see young people encouraged to do. After years of working with youth, she says today's teenagers and young adults seem to be more fearful and anxious about the future.
"Young people need to be able to share that, develop confidence and be able to stand up and say, 'We can do something constructive and positive for our future by standing together.'"
Mixit: In A Curious Garden, Auckland Botanic Gardens (Hill Rd, Manurewa), today and tomorrow 11am and 3pm. Mixit meets at the Corban Estate Arts Centre during school terms on Saturdays.