While the first influx of refugees into Levin won't be arriving until the middle of next year, a few local employers have been providing jobs for immigrants and refugees for years and they have found the interaction with refugees and immigrants a rewarding experience. Horowhenua Chronicle editor Janine Baalbergen has spoken to two of them as part of a series of articles on refugees.
District councillor Neville Gimblett, a Foxton pharmacist, has had highly qualified people from the Middle East working for him, while asparagus and strawberry grower Tendertips owner Geoff Lewis has had people from the Pacific Islands as well as Bhutan and Myanmar among his staff, and some of his key senior staff are immigrants.
Gimblett said refugees as well as immigrants applied for jobs and he soon realised none of them felt safe in their home countries. Their issues were compounded by the fact their qualifications were seldom recognised in New Zealand and they were forced to re-train at considerable expense.
They brought their lives to work, the same as we did, but their lives were just a little different and that could make life hard for them, and open a whole new universe to us.
One pharmacist Gimblett employed had trained in New Zealand after coming here at 16 with her family from Gaza. She was Muslim.
"She was a superb worker," Gimblett said.
At around the same time he employed an Egyptian Christian couple on the recommendation of a colleague who often helps foreign qualified pharmacists find work.
Both had to requalify in New Zealand and life here had been a struggle for them, but they felt pushed out in Egypt.
"I've had to confront my own prejudices at that time," Gimblett said. "Certain assumptions really got in the way, but all three worked out fine. They just got on with their jobs and each other and the customers loved them.
"The picture we have of so-called Third World countries is really not good, but these people brought the world to Foxton and from their perspective, which differs from ours they opened our eyes to their view of the world," he said.
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For example, the young woman from Gaza anxiously followed one of the Israeli incursions into Gaza, while one of the Egyptians ran into visa problems when on a visit home and had to remain behind until problems were sorted.
"It was at the time of the uprising there when the army took over. Nerve-racking for them and for us also."
"You need to give them [immigrants and refugees] a chance and just accept them as people, look past skin colour, religion or culture and you'll be pleasantly surprised," Gimblett said.
He said his main initial concern was that the three were from different countries in the same part of the world and that they had different religions.
"I did not know how that would work and was unsure of any consequences that might result, but I soon found that for them it was never a issue."
Asparagus grower Tendertips started employing refugees six years ago and they haven't regretted that for a minute, says owner Geoff Lewis.
"I was approached by the Red Cross in Palmerston North which wanted to know whether I could employ some people. We had worked with people from the Pacific Islands for years and had also employed people from Asia. Cultural diversity was part of our life.
"We were used to managing language issues and could deal with people who spoke minimal English."
The first family that arrived at Tendertips had been in New Zealand for six years and had spent 21 years in refugee camps.
"The younger generation only knew life as a refugee. Their families had been displaced from their homeland and New Zealand was one of three countries prepared to take them in. Interestingly these people see their places of work as part of their extended family and we became a special place for these people and part of their family.
"One man one day brought his entire family along to show them where he worked and they expressed gratitude for the fact that he had a job and was happy working here.
"If you show them respect a special relationship will develop and they allowed us to be part of their family and cultural celebrations. We also found that other staff were prepared to help those who were new settle in. So mutual respect led to them becoming confident, effective workers."
Lewis has to admit that for his firm integrating refugees might be easier than for others.
"A packhouse with a large workforce has many collective tasks that are the same every day. Not every workplace has that."
He said that over time the younger ones pick up enough English to be able to enter the workforce fulltime.
"I still get asked for references for people who were here five or six years ago." For older refugees with little English Tendertips provides a safe and steady work environment.
"They can stay here until they retire."
Tendertips provides seasonal work from September to December, meaning most staff need to find other work during the rest of the year. And for many refugees the Red Cross has found those jobs.
Tendertips provides a good starting point for many refugees.
"They have to get used to coming to work at certain times, learn about employment law and contracts as well as health and safety requirements. We can teach them the skills they need to work elsewhere successfully. When they are confident they can do other roles. Individual training is often needed," said Lewis.
He said it helped if there were people in the workplace already from the same country as they can help each other.
"That also helps their confidence. Once their language skills are good enough they can move on to other employers, should they wish."
Tendertips currently employs former refugees who live in Palmerston North and Feilding. "They are happy to travel here for work every day. Safety and security are really important for former refugees and once they are settled and feel happy and accepted in a community they do not want to leave."
"They are looking to be welcomed and nurtured and we have found they give back like nothing else. Having them in your workplace or town is enriching. Over the years the Pacific community have brought us their music, dance and Pasifika days. We should celebrate that and all other cultures."
Lewis said he knew a few other employers were already keen to help refugees.
"Knowing that refugees are coming to the district to live and work I have already been approached by companies with jobs they believe would be suitable for newly arrived refugees.
"Refugees do not want hand-outs. They were used to looking after themselves before they had to leave home. They believe in earning their place in our country. They want to enrich us and they will not become statistics."
Lewis said two senior staff at Tendertips were immigrants.
"The Thai lady who runs our packhouse is simply phenomenal and our economist is a highly skilled man from the Philippines who has worked around the world. Both are key staff in our business."
Levin will be one of a number of regional centres to house refugees from next year. In this series the Horowhenua Chronicle looks at what creates refugees and what happens to them on the journey to New Zealand. We investigate how refugees are prepared for life in our country and what our local community can do to help these people find a safe, new place they can call home. This article is the sixth in the series.
New Zealand employers talk about why they give jobs to refugees:
• Mohammad Ali is Palestinian and came to New Zealand in 2016 as a refugee. Now he's working with Dunedin Housing Maintenance Contractors, a job he found with help from our Pathways to Employment programme:
• Pa Uk and Liban Nur have come from very different places. Now they are working and succeeding together, with support from New Zealand Red Cross' Pathways to Employment programme. They are now apprentices:
• Naw Ellis is one of our newer Kiwis who arrived in the country through the refugee quota programme. She's found work through our Pathways to Employment programme and it's changed her life, she said: