In a Canvas Family Special, Aimie Cronin talks with Mina Khadim Hussain & Mitchell Pham.
Mina Khadim Hussain had been studying English for two months. Her father insisted she learn the language, telling his trusted only daughter he believed she could be more than both his sons if she wanted, that she could do anything. She went to classes at the learning centre where the family lived, in Quetta, Pakistan. She had begun to learn the alphabet and some basic sentences.
On March 12, 2013, she was asked to stand up and give a speech in front of her class. The topic was "Mother", and Mina remembers standing up and saying: "Mother is a gift from God, mother is kind." She remembers sitting down and seeing her cousin at the door, "looking so sad". She went to him. "Your father has been killed," he said. She had only just spoken to her father on the phone.
She remembers the walk home, turning the corner to see her house up on the hill, seeing cars crowded in front of it, she remembers dropping her books and running inside where everyone was crying but no one would tell her why. She remembers finding her mum, Zakia, asking her, "What is going on?" and Zakia saying, "They are telling me something I cannot believe."
Mina's father, Khadim Hussain, had been shot while working as a manager in the mines in Mach, about three hours away by train from Quetta. The family had moved from their home in Afghanistan to Pakistan, because at the time it was safe, but violence had stubbornly followed them. Just one month before her father's death, a bomb blast about 3km from their home had killed 150 people. Khadim had talked about applying for refugee status, about wanting to move his family somewhere that could boast enduring safety, but he was earning good money and they knew their plight would be far far down the list.
When he died, the situation changed dramatically. Zakia was unable to work and had three children to feed. The once relatively prosperous family relied on handouts from charities and extended family. It went on like this for 18 months before they were informed by the United Nations' refugee body, UNHCR, that in eight days they would be moving to New Zealand. The moment they found out, they looked at each other and Mina said, "Where is New Zealand?" But it didn't matter where it was, they were already lost.
"We didn't want to study when our father died," says Mina, "we didn't want to do anything, we couldn't think."
The kids sat like owls in the corners of their classrooms and for the longest time had no idea what was being said around them.
It has been three years since Mina, now 19, arrived to New Zealand with her mother and two younger brothers, Qudratullah, now 15, and Rahmatullah, now 13. Since the day she learned of her father's death, Mina never went back to the English language classes and says she barely remembered her ABCs, but she spoke more than the rest of her family. The kids sat like owls in the corners of their classrooms and for the longest time had no idea what was being said around them.
They arrived with bags stuffed full of dresses and clothes and gold-coloured cushions, some mats for the floor, to a modest Housing New Zealand brick-and-tile in Fairfield, Hamilton, that had been politely decorated with couches and beds. "I was like, what the heck?" says Mina, who was used to sleeping on the floor. "I asked Mum, 'How can we stay here?'" Her mother calmly replied, "It is okay, we are starting a new life, we have to build everything again." And then Zakia sat down on one of those mats and began to cry.
She barely stopped crying for two years. One day, her daughter told her that was enough. "No," said Zakia, "He was my partner, you can't feel the pain." She went to the doctor over and over and suffered headaches, all related to stress. Slowly her tears began to settle, only to erupt if anyone spoke about her husband. "Mum cries if you talk about it," says Rahmatullah, "so we just bottle it up. You just have to deal with it, it's just life."
A sweet, articulate kid with big dreams, he says family to him means "pretty much everything, to be honest. I mean, they are my life, they are my future, that's just how it is." He says he feels part of a wider family, too. He used to be told "go back to your country" by "almost everybody" at his primary school, but now he is at intermediate and his classroom feels like a family. "They act normal to me, like I am from this country," he says, and he reels off nicknames he and his friends have for each other and games they play at lunchtime.
if you have your family, that is all you need, honestly.
The family agrees that New Zealand is home, that they don't feel lost anymore. Despite all of them experiencing racism in the neighbourhood - being called terrorists, that they don't belong, Mina having boys try and pull off her hijab as she walks down her street, the car window and Mina's bedroom window being smashed, break-ins, people tapping on all of their windows late at night and consuming them with a familiar sense of dread. Despite all that for the most part they feel safe here, able to imagine a long life ahead together. "It's okay when you don't have food," says Mina, "it's okay when you don't have money; if you have your family, that is all you need, honestly."
There is a way to go with their resettlement. They want to live in a street where they can walk freely without censure and, somewhere on a long waiting list with Housing New Zealand, their case resides. Mina aims to study business at university next year but worries her English will not be up to scratch, she is struggling to find part time work; Zakia is unable to drive and her English is basic, so Mina is left to take care of the needs of the entire family, which sometimes impacts on her ability to study and work. Despite feeling part of the wider Kiwi family, none of the kids have had friends to visit outside of the Afghan community. They say they feel safe here, they feel grateful, but their integration into the community has a way to go.
"Integration is something that takes a very long time," says Jo de Lisle, manager at English Language Partners Waikato, an organisation offering English language skills and social support to refugees and migrants. She says when refugee families do make meaningful connections it is often with the volunteers who reach out to help them through organisations like English Partners, or the Red Cross. She says it's important for people to remember that "refugees don't come here because they want to, they come here because they have to, and they have family they have left behind, people they worry and wonder about which makes integration more difficult because their mind is somewhere else.
"The whole nature of being a refugee is trauma, they are victims of forced migration. A lot of them leave their homes with nothing. Most refugees have got a story about somebody being killed – often a lot of somebodies."
When Mitchell Pham arrived in New Zealand on August 24, 1985, he was 13 and alone. He remembers it was something like 7C, a cold he had never known before, and there was a bus waiting to take him to the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. He remembers looking out the window thinking, where are the people? He had just spent close to two years in refugee camps, where the last one he was in with 22,000 people, was overcrowded and under-sanitised. As soon as he arrived in Auckland, he began searching for all of his family who, he hoped, were still alive in Vietnam.
The Pham family, mother Hoa Thuy Dang, father Nghi Dinh Pham and their three children Mitchell, Truman and Hannah, had tried to escape twice before because of economic hardship after the Vietnam war. Both times they had been arrested and imprisoned, when Mitchell was 8 and 10. His parents, panicked by the reality that their oldest son faced army conscription if he stayed, could afford to send only Mitchell on the third escape attempt. His mother tried to be brave, telling him he was going on a vacation, but he says he will never forget the look on her face as she said goodbye. "I knew then what was happening, but we couldn't talk about it."
The biggest fear a refugee has in the camps is the possibility of being stuck there.
His journey to New Zealand is unfathomable, probably, to anyone but a refugee. It involves the escape, a boat chase, being shot at by coast guards, exhausting all food and water on the boat, being stranded in the ocean, a cruise ship passing by only pausing to take pictures, finally being picked up by a supply ship and dropped to the nearest UN refugee camp in Indonesia.
He arrived full of gratitude to be alive but soon learned there were a lot of people in the camps who had been there for more than 10 years, waiting. "The biggest fear a refugee has in the camps is the possibility of being stuck there," he says. He had no one to look out for his health and safety, so he made sure he queued early for food, that he boiled his water to stay healthy, and he learned English fast. He was picked up by the UN and became part of the teaching staff when he was 12 years old.
He had lived a big life by the time he arrived in this country. Sent to live with volunteer families for six months at a time, he describes them as kind and well intentioned, but ill equipped to help him navigate his trauma, his ongoing search for family, this foreign country and all of the ups and downs of normal teenagehood. He began flatting independently at 16.
"Looking for my family was my priority," he says of those early years in New Zealand. "I remember really, really bad days when I thought I would never see them again, I remember thinking, 'How long do I keep trying, will I still be trying when I am 50?'"
It took five years from the time he said goodbye to his family to the time he reconnected with them through letters. It took 13 years before he was able to raise the money to get back and see their faces again. Two things struck him on that visit. The first was the culture shock he experienced upon re-entering Vietnam. "But the most amazing thing was that my family treated me like I never left, like I went on a long vacation and came back after the summer holidays, just like that. It hit me very clearly that a family can survive all time and distance. It gave me a very firm perspective about what family means: a permanent unconditional bond that can survive across time and distance and I think it is the only thing that is truly valuable over all of the material things. Once you have a full connection with your family you feel complete – everything else doesn't really matter."
Now 46 and married to a New Zealander with two daughters, Mitchell's life is full with family. His brother and sister have migrated to New Zealand and he joyfully reports he sees them every week. It has been interesting, he says, to shift the sense of gravity from Vietnam to New Zealand, which the majority of his family now calls home. His parents now "the remote connection" he was for all those years.
Hoa Thuy Dang and Nghi Dinh Pham have no hope of ever being able to join their children and grandchildren permanently in New Zealand. When Mitchell learned his family were alive in Vietnam, he applied for a visa and was given two years to raise the money for their entry. While he was studying business full time at university, he worked two part-time jobs. He couldn't raise the money in time. "You're only given the chance to get the visa once in your life," he says.
Because of his own experience, he co-founded an organisation called the Auckland Refugee Family Trust, where funds are raised to help families who are running out of time, to top up the rest of the money they have raised to get their families here. Mitchell's is one of the few CVs that warrants a second page, such is the extent of his work as a business entrepreneur, technology innovator and industry leader. He says reached this point with a similar mindset to many refugees he has known: "When you get here you just keep going, because that is all you know, it's not even a conscious thing."
In May 1988, he was given New Zealand citizenship, describing it as an amazing moment in his life. Thirty years later, in June 2018, he received the World Class New Zealand award for his contribution to technology and New Zealand-Asia relations.
"For me," he says, "the circle is complete."