Afife Harris has never forgotten what it was like to have to flee her home to escape the ravages of war.
The 65-year-old Dunedin woman remembers only too well the day her father gathered up the family and drove for hours to take refuge in a small village well away from Beirut, Lebanon, when fighting broke out in civil war.
"The war was horrible, we had to run away from it," she says. "Luckily we had a place to go to (the family owned a holiday home in the village), so it was not too bad for us."
Yet this experience has helped shape the work she now does helping refugees escaping from another conflict – the devastating civil war in Syria which, since 2012, has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives and caused 5.6 million people to leave the country.
Over the last three years she has been a friend and supporter to more than 500 Syrian refugees who have made Dunedin their home.
"When they arrive at the airport I am there to meet them. I tell them I am your friend, I am your neighbour, I speak your language," she says. "I help them find jobs, help them with English; they are coming to a strange place and it takes time for them to adjust to a new culture."
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Harris, who came to New Zealand in 1990 with her husband Bill (now a professor specialising in Middle East affairs at the University of Otago), does all of this - and a lot of other community work - entirely voluntarily: "I do it because I have to, it's just my personality. They are my people and many of them come here having lost everything."
Her efforts have earned her an ASB Good as Gold award and she plans to use it to visit her family in Lebanon for the first time in ten years.
"I have a brother and three sisters still in Lebanon, a brother in France and a brother in Saudi Arabia," she says. "I haven't seen them since 2008, so it will be like a family reunion. Bill is retiring next year so we are planning to do the trip then."
The couple met when Bill was in Lebanon researching for his PhD and Afife was working as a secretary at the YMCA in Beirut. Was it love at first sight? "I don't know, it just happened, but I didn't know it would mean I'd leave my family," she says.
Harris was happy to get away from war-torn Lebanon (lasting from 1975 to 1990, the civil war claimed an estimated 126,000 lives and led to the exodus of almost one million people).
Initially living in Australia for two years, the couple eventually settled in Dunedin where they raised a family of three sons, all of whom are now in their 20s.
It was in Dunedin where she began giving her time and energy to a myriad of community causes: She has raised funds for the Christchurch earthquake recovery, cancer research and Amnesty International, run Lebanese cooking demonstrations to raise money for other charities and has provided food at many community events over the years.
But it is her work with new immigrants where she has really made her mark. Her work includes:
• Volunteering as a translator for refugees at medical appointments, job interviews and driving lessons (she is fluent in English and Arabic).
• Organising free English and computer classes at the North East Valley Community Centre for refugees.
• Setting up a migrant market to help new arrivals sell their crafts and share food.
• Co-ordinating a Chai and Chat programme to help women from other cultures meet New Zealand women over a cup of coffee or tea.
• Co-founding the Koru Dunedin Migrant Support group.
• Serving as president of the Dunedin Multi-Ethnic Council and co-ordinator of the Multicultural Women's Group in North East Valley.
• Organising a game of soccer to be played next year between a refugee team and MPs (she is doing this with the help of National list MP based in Dunedin and former Minister of Immigration, Michael Woodhouse).
Aside from all of this she runs her own business selling Middle Eastern fare - falafels, hummus, tabbouleh, baklava and borek - at the Otago Farmers Market every Saturday.
ASB's GM of corporate communications, Christian May, says Harris is passionate about promoting tolerance and understanding of other cultures: "Afife's dedication to helping welcome and settle people into New Zealand is inspirational.
"She is an incredibly determined woman and a deserving Good as Gold recipient," he says. "Someone told us she has the energy of three people, and they weren't wrong."
So, how does she fit it all in? "I have to be very organised," she says. "I plan my day, but it's easy for me because I don't have young children any longer."
Harris says the ASB awards took her by surprise. "They kept it secret until the last minute; I'm shocked in some ways and happy in others. I'm not looking for money but I'm very grateful to them and appreciate it (the award).
"I cry, I am emotional and I didn't expect it. I just like to help people, it's my passion. The tears I cry are from happiness."