My Life To Live tells the stories of the immense contribution of refugee background workers to their new home country, Aotearoa. It tells of their hopes and dreams. It also tells of their struggles in low wage work and the difference the Living Wage makes in the lives of workers and their families. We thank Rebecca, Nigussie, Alexandra, Suleman, Moreen and Pau for sharing their lives and their stories.
My Life To Live has been made possible through partnership with ChangeMakers Resettlement Forum and Living Wage Movement Aotearoa NZ. The stories have been recorded in hours of interviews conducted by Victoria University of Wellington Senior Lecturer in History, Dr Cybèle Locke and the narratives have been crafted by Wellington writer, Elizabeth Knox. Both have generously given of their time and skills.
Refugee background New Zealanders come with nothing but hopes and dreams. They are filled with determination to build new lives and support their families. They are hard- working and bring skills and potential to their new home. But often the only jobs
available are the lowest paid — in sectors like cleaning, hospitality and security.
My Life To Live tells the stories of six workers from refugee backgrounds working in Wellington —stories of long hours, low incomes and hardship. Alongside those stories, My Life To Live shows their aspirations and the difference the Living Wage can make to workers and their families.
The six participants are from a diversity of ethnic groups — from South Sudan, Myanmar, the Assyrian community in Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Colombia. Despite that diversity their stories have a common thread —love for their original homes; the dangers, hardship and suffering that forced them to leave their homes; their lives in traditionally low paid jobs; their immense contribution to their new home country and their hopes and dreams. While the stories show the dignity of workers, they are stories of lives of struggle in low paid jobs. They are stories of leaving for work early and returning home late and a battle to make ends meet and build better lives for themselves and their children.
I went through many things, but I had God behind me, in front of me, to my right and my left.
I was born in 1976 in South Sudan. I lived in a village with my whole family. Mum, Dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone. We helped our father in the garden. It was our own place, and we were happy.
When the fighting came we ran. The border to Ethiopia was a long way away. It took many days on foot. I helped carry the youngest. Everything we had to eat we had to carry on our heads.
Life in the camp was hard. There wasn’t enough food, and sometimes the water was bad. We’d line up, for soap to wash our clothes, for blankets to lie on. Sometimes at night there’d be attacks. People around us were killed. You are running in the dark and people are being shot. You’d keep running till you are shot — or God protects you. I was in that camp from when I was thirteen until I was thirty. I got married there. We met in the camp playground. I had my first four children in camp.
My sister-in-law had TB. Her husband talked to the UN and they took her to hospital. They gave them a form to fill in and said they could send them to New Zealand. In New Zealand she got treatment but was still very weak. She was asked, “What would help you?” She said, “If you bring my brother, we could share the life here.” The UN came looking for us in the camp. That’s how we came here.
I arrived in New Zealand in May 2005. Life was changed. There was no fighting, the food was good, the water was good. We were in Mangere for six weeks. They taught us some English and about life in New Zealand. Class was in the morning. “Ting Ting Ting!” They’d wake us up. It was shower, breakfast, class. After six weeks we came to Wellington.
My first job in New Zealand I cleaned from six in the morning till one in the afternoon. I vacuumed, swept, mopped the floor, wiped down the mirrors in the changing rooms. I left because I was pregnant with
my youngest. When she turned 11 months I got a job in the city. Night shifts. I’d come home, sleep, wake up. At six-thirty I’d head in to Wellington. I tried to work in the mornings. My firstborn took the children to school and picked them up. It was hard work. All the different cleaning jobs were minimum wage.
I started working here in 2011. I clean 50 hours a week for a few cents more than the minimum wage. We go building to building. Sixteen different buildings. I work up until ten o’clock when I have a break, fifteen minutes, a cup of tea. Then we do the main building. I do all the bathrooms, men’s and women’s. We carry everything between buildings, like vacuum cleaners and rubbish. We walk everywhere.
At five o’clock I go home, clean the house and cook for my kids. They shower, we eat, then I help them with their homework. We go to bed. I’m awake again at four-thirty. I make my lunch and the little ones’ lunches and drive to work. I try to get there early to get a coupon carpark. I pay up to $10 for parking every day.
Because of the low wage there’s things I can’t do. The school fees are hard. Rent. Power. I turn off the internet when it gets too difficult. I say to the kids, “You can do the work at school or the library.” They say, “But you’re not here to drive us to the library.” Back home there’s still fighting and my mother and father move around all the time. When they get to a new place they call and say they have no food. So I send money.
I’m always looking for a better paying job, but there’s nothing. I’d like to get a certificate as a caregiver. If I got the living wage, oh my God! Life would be different! I force myself to work my hours. If I had good pay I could finish at two-thirty, help the kids with their homework, take them to the library.
I want a better life, especially for them. New Zealand is a really peaceful country, but the payment for work is very low. We need a living wage. Please.
I was born in Myanmar in 1977. My parents were farmers. They tried to earn my school fee, but it was hard. I worked, selling books, to earn enough money to pay the tuition.
I have four sisters and three brothers. I’m the oldest. My village was only a hundred houses. We all knew each other.
We were on the border to India and there was fighting between our military and — how do we call it — the anti-military? They go house-to-house asking for money. They took cows and pigs and chickens. Sometimes during school they’d say, “Come and carry our weapons.” We had to do it, otherwise they’d smash us and shoot us. It was the most dangerous place. We couldn’t stay there.
In 2004 I left my country for Malaysia. I didn’t have a passport. Even if you held a paper from the United Nations High Commissioner — temporary protection for refugees — there was no legal status. Employers were afraid of me because of the police. If you got work in a factory for one NZ dollar an hour at the end of the month they’d say, “We haven’t sold enough. You have to wait another week.” They pay in cash, and you’re afraid of robbery. Once we were waiting at the bus stop and the police picked me up and drove me to the middle of the jungle. I almost cried. They said, “If you have money, we will drive you back.” They took all my salary and dropped me at the factory door.
I married in Malaysia in 2007. We had an agent to get us jobs. The agent was also illegal. He got me and my wife jobs. After a month my boss said, “I already paid your salary. I paid your agent.” The agent said, “Your boss didn’t give me any money.” We worked for a month, and we didn’t get anything.
One day we were going to church. We got off the bus and a police car stopped by us. They asked us to get in. When I wouldn’t they pushed me and smashed my chin. That time they only took my wallet. The security saw us but couldn’t help us. The security talked to the pastor, and he invited us to the office, and he gave $100!
We got to New Zealand through UNHCR, arriving in August 2010. It was my wife and I together with our one year-old daughter and my brother too. When our plane landed, I thought, “We will be a safe.” In Mangere the police came and presented information about how New Zealand police look after people. But still, in our hearts, we’re afraid.
We came to Wellington. A volunteer and social worker picked us up at the airport. The city was beautiful. And when we got to the house, everything was here, food in the fridge, everything. In Myanmar we never saw a fridge. We never imagined how the government, the social workers and volunteers would help us. It felt like a paradise.
My English teacher found me a job as a kitchenhand after school, 3pm to 12am. I did that for a year. There was no bus at night. I walked home. Sometimes in winter, in the middle of the night, it’s raining, cold and scary. I can’t spend time with my family because I’m studying from 8am until 3pm and then after that I work. I can’t see my daughter every day.
I asked the Red Cross to help me find another job, this time in housekeeping. I became a supervisor. I’m still working there. The job is general cleaning, toilets, making the beds. We have nearly 230 beds. Sometimes we have only five staff, but check-in time is the target to finish the rooms. We are rushing, without a break. I started on $13 an hour, now it $17.70, 50c more for a supervisor. My wife works 6 hours a day, minimum wage.
I aim to get a degree. But I’m sending money home to my parents. If my workplace became a living wage employer that would be enough for us to spend time with the family, and help my parents, who are very old now.
I have a dream. My goal is to be a social worker. Because I came here as a refugee, my desire is to help people.
I was born in the south of Colombia, Villagarzon, in July 1995. My mother was a hairdresser, and had her own place. I had many friends, and my brother, who is close in age to me. Every second day we’d go to the river to swim and fish.
When I was twelve, I went away to school up in the cold north, a small town called San Andres. It was more indigenous. We were like tourists. I learned the language, how to translate it, and how to make things. Brightly coloured weaving. The patterns used depended on each person, and the family as well.
Back home two groups were fighting each other. My mother was once standing in front of the mirror in her salon and saw a man behind her pointing a gun at her. She just turned and asked him what was happening. And he was like, ‘Oh, she’s not the one.’ He found who he was looking for in another salon. I don’t know what happened to that lady. My mum wanted to just get out.
I was in boarding school when my mother went to Ecuador. She wasn’t leaving Colombia, but when she got there she said to herself, “I could take my family.” I didn’t have any reason to go. I loved the place I came from. But after I finished my studies, my brother, and uncle, aunt and sister went to Ecuador. We became refugees.
In Ecuador I had to work. I was selling pieces of watermelon. I was doing well, but then I got sick and couldn’t do it anymore. I learned how to do a manicure and pedicure, and that’s how I helped my mum. We were working together as a team, because sometimes it’s really hard over there. I didn’t have options. I wasn’t studying and I wanted to.
I was eighteen when the New Zealand government chose our family. We went to Mangere first, then Wellington. Wellington was the only place we were able to go to our church, the Church of God: Ministry of Jesus Christ.
The most difficult thing was learning English. There were times I cried because I couldn’t understand, or tell people what I was feeling, what I wanted. I missed a lot of things about home, food especially. But I will tell you now, even though I didn’t have the language, people always listened. The people here were really friendly. They trust people, like no matter what.
I went to Victoria University. I did English courses, and tourism. I learned from my teachers, and also my mates. After university I completed my certificate for flight attending. But I didn’t apply for a job doing that, because I’m waiting for my citizenship. Once I have my citizenship, I can get a passport.
While I was studying, I worked for a company that manages events in the stadium. I was in crowd control. I was in the corporate boxes. If I saw someone who was drunk, I wouldn’t do anything, just tell security. It was casual work. I never knew what the hours were going to be. Then I applied to work in a supermarket. I was a deli assistant. I made a lot of friends. The pay was minimum wage, but I liked the work, and things I was learning.
I don’t know how I got into security, it just happened. I had experience with customer service from the supermarket but had to learn about safety, and being aware of everything. Now I work security at shops, apartments, malls. It’s a minimum wage job. I like to have a weekend, so I’m not going to just work, work, work.
If my job paid the living wage it would be a big change. I want to pay for my studies. I’m going to be a flight attendant, put some money away, and pay for medical school. Help out my mother. Some people think that because a person is doing something else, we don’t have something in our minds for ourselves. But I’ve never stopped dreaming about being a doctor. No matter how long it takes, one day I will say I can finally do it.
I was born in the north of Iraq, in a place called Duhok in 1981. One of eleven, I’m the youngest of the girls. I speak Assyrian, Arabic, Kurdish and English, and I want to learn Maori.
There was a war between Iraq and Iran. My father was in the army and he would be gone for months at a time. He was the one earning money, but he got wounded. They told us he was dead and we had a funeral, then we heard he was at the hospital, and his left arm had a hole in it.
I didn`t enjoy school but I liked playing football with the boys. I left the school at fourteen because we couldn’t afford to buy stationery and school uniforms.
When America occupied Iraq it was not safe for women. There was a lot of kidnapping. My dad thought it would be better if I left. I went to Syria for three years but couldn’t work there because the rules in Syria were that people fleeing were not allowed to work legally. I lived with my sister and her family while she was waiting to get visa to Canada. During that time I met my ex-husband in Syria and we got married. He brought me to New Zealand in 2007 as he was New Zealand citizen.
It was very hard for me to leave my family. I thought I will never be able to speak English. I started from zero, learning ABCs.
I got a job at a restaurant, afternoons, as I was doing English classes in the mornings. In the class there were people from different countries; everybody has his own story. We all helped each other. I had completed all the levels at that school and the school told me “you are finished now”.I didn’t want to stop learning English. I went to Wellington High School, but I had to pay school fees and for transport. The teachers let me finish early to go to work. They understood my situation.
Once I finished level 2 at Wellington High School, I got my residency. I started studying at ETC English Teaching College. School was nine to three so I had to leave my afternoon job and work at a supermarket part-time after school and weekends. It was a
minimum wage job. I got extra work at a hairdressing salon. It was more than sixty hours a week for both jobs and studying English one night after work, I was getting home every day late and very tired.
Later on I decided to do a makeup course at WelTech. I did the online test and they told me my English wasn`t good enough but I still enrolled. I did the course and I passed. The first three years were the hardest.
In 2015 I visited my family in Iraq. I managed to save pocket money and my cousin helped with the ticket. My mother wanted me to stay but my father insisted that I go back to New Zealand because I wasn`t safe. ISIS was kidnapping girls and killing Christians. Being far from my family is very hard. I wish I had at least one member of my family here in New Zealand.
I left my jobs when I went to Iraq. When I returned I was back at the first step. I have learned English to find a better job, earn better money, have better life, but I was back working three hours a day at a restaurant and another supermarket job.
Then I got a job at Ministry of Social Development but my contract ended. While working there full-time I was volunteering for Women’s Refuge doing their crisis line, working part-time at a supermarket, volunteering for police doing Ethnic Community Patrol as well as doing literacy classes for people who want to join the police.
Then I got a job as a Citizenship Case Officer. I loved my job, especially the ceremonies. Each time I went I felt like it was the day I got my citizenship. But my contract ended there too.
My dream is to join New Zealand police but to do that I have to be good at literacy and numeracy and swimming. If my supermarket job was paying the living wage I would be able to afford literacy and numeracy tutor, at least once a week.
I’m working so hard to achieve my goals, and my dream to wear the blue police uniform, so hopefully one day my dream will come true.
I grew up in Eritrea, moving between there and Djibouti because of the war with Ethiopia.
Eritrea has had the same leader for twenty- nine years. With no voting. I was with my mother at first, then was adopted by a friend of my father’s. I came to New Zealand with him. I don’t know where all my mother’s and father’s children are now. There were six of us. Some may be in Sudan with my mother.
I came to New Zealand in February 1999, with my adopted father, Sale, and his nine children. I had an uncle here when we came. He had a degree from Massey and Victoria. When he was a student he sent us what money he could, and sponsored us to come here. He worked for two years as a social worker — then he died of a heart attack.
When we got here it was difficult, and very, very different. First we were in Mangere, then we came to Lower Hutt. We had a volunteer sponsor who helped us after school, and helped buy things, like a fridge. She was a manager for the Animist Refugee Centre.
My first job was as a volunteer for work experience. To help with my language. I could understand and speak French, but not English. That first job was digging, cutting trees, removing rubbish. I learned from the people I worked with. The names of all the tools — shovel, hammer, all that stuff.
My next job was putting together office furniture. The pay was less than the minimum wage, but a bedsit was $60 a week then. Not now. That was 2000. Everything was more affordable so we used to push ourselves to work more hours. Like fifty hours.
After that I went to Hastings to work in an orchard. 8am to 1pm, then four hours sleep, then back to work
again from 6pm to 6am. I was in an apple packaging house. We were paid $10.56 an hour. I stopped because I got a sore leg. All that standing.
Next I got work in a supermarket. But I was back to $8.50 an hour — $275 dollars a week after tax. Rent was cheaper so there was something left for food. I was single then, living by myself.
Next I was a taxi driver with a company in Wellington. You have to buy your own car, and you pay the company’s ACC levy, and pay for the eftpos machine. And for the counter. There was a lot of paperwork. Every three months I did my own GST. I had to pay for an accountant. Some days you make money and some days you don’t. I worked 12-13 hours a day with one day a week off. I didn’t have a family then. I was on my own. Once Uber came the taxis were slow and I gave them up.
My next job was cleaning. I started at $15 an hour. I used to work long hours: two hours, four hours, two hours. Broken shifts. 50-60 hours a week.
One year and four months ago I got a job that pays the living wage. I’m a cleaner for the Wellington City Council. They pay over $20 per hour. I went from $15.15 to $20.55.
It made a big difference. I can put gas in my car, cut some hours, spend more time with the kids. The rent is expensive, but we still handle it. I can survive, help my family.
But cleaning is still cleaning. I’d like to study. I’d like to do engineering. I used to be a diesel mechanic before I came to New Zealand. But when I came here my English was too poor. My dream is to study and to bring other family members here. I’m applying, but it takes time. I cross my fingers; one day they will come.
I was born in 1977 in Ethiopia. I grew up in an orphanage, with 350 children. It was full on, not so much the numbers, but who looked after who. I went there when I was three days old. My mother passed away, and my twin didn’t make it. From that day I was on my own, but surrounded by good people, who prayed for me, and loved me. It was only boys in the orphanage, with different health issues, mostly because of the war. They’d lost a hand or a leg. I was capable, so I looked after them.
When I was fifteen, I moved to Nazareth Saint Joseph Catholic Missionary College and attended Asegladews vocational school in Nazareth. I learned electronics but stopped halfway. I was more a people person. The missionaries got me a job in the Swedish Missionary Handicap Association. I came up with a woodwork and metalwork project for handicapped people. People without a leg, or arm — some of them blind — helped locals fix things, a bed, a chair, or doors and windows.
The trouble started, 1998 to 1999. Ethnic division, people targeted because of their politics, their opinion of the government.
During the dark regime, if you aren’t disabled, once you’re fourteen the army just comes and takes you. One day I was walking, and I saw soldiers from afar. I began to limp. They came and beat me. “Are you pretending?” I said, “Look, I am not pretending, this is how it is.” I was saved, but others of my friends were taken. Some never came back.
When I was seven years old, I prayed to God, asking: “God, you took away my family, my close friends in different ways and I need a safe country. God, give me a family. Give me a country where I belong.”
When I was fifteen and sixteen years, I was working with foreigners and I was arrested by civil security, beaten up and then released with a warning, because security said the foreigners were there to spy on our country.
I got another job in an NGO run by German people. They spent a lot of money and even sacrificed their lives to get me out of my country and to Germany in 2000. But when I got there, I found I could not claim refugee status.
There I heard “New Zealand is great.” Because of that prayer when I was seven, I went to New Zealand.
In 2002, I landed at the airport and being welcome and belonging began. But life was still a struggle because I was an asylum seeker without refugee status. I was declined a couple of times, but many people helped me.
My first job was as a cleaner in a supermarket for low wage. Then I started working in a bakery. I learned English not by studying, but by talking, listening. One of my friends said I should work with people, so I studied caregiving and went to work at a rest home. I enjoyed this job because I’ve been looked after by my people and I wanted to pay something back.
My refugee status took a long time and was difficult. I had to go through a lawyer. I didn’t have enough money, so I went to Hastings to do orchard work.
Finally, I got my permanent residency and I said to myself, “This is my country. I will die for this country. There are decent Kiwi people who believe in me and help me.”
Then I got a position as a care support worker which I love. I’m still doing that job today.
I became a leader in the Ethiopian community in 2016. One thing I learned from that is that a lot of people are struggling. I know friends and family who have been working as cleaners for many years. Two, three jobs at a time. I care for these people, the way I cared in the orphanage. When I started as a care support it was a minimum wage job. You can’t even dream and it’s hard to survive.
When I got the living wage life was different. I’d been working overtime, asking for more shifts. Then suddenly we had the pay rise. I could now focus on helping people, on social time, time for my child, time to go to church.
I love this country. I want everybody to have fair, equal treatment. Let’s lift people up, let everybody contribute their talents, their energies. Yeah. That’s it.