A new life in Invercargill

Southland is the seventh refugee resettlement location in New Zealand, find out how the Calero family are settling into their new city. 

It's an unusually sunny and warm day in Invercargill when the bus pulls up. Mauricio Calero and Flor Ciro and their sons, Brandon Pation (18) and Dilan Calero (4), disembark looking at the group of people waiting for them with a mixture of excitement, apprehension, confusion, and exhaustion.

It’s unsurprising considering the journey they have taken to get here, a city at the very bottom of the world and 12,000km from the country they were born.

The family doesn’t want to go into too much detail about why they fled their home in Colombia but say they were forced into Ecuador six years ago.

"When we were told we would be going to New Zealand, we didn’t have any idea that it existed," says Flor. “After that we investigated a bit more to try and find out more.”

"I feel really happy to start my new life here."
The Calero family on the day they arrived in Invercargill (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross).

Today they've travelled from Auckland where they’ve spent the past six weeks in Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre as an introduction to life in New Zealand.

Greeting them when they hop off the bus are their four Red Cross Refugee Support Volunteers, Alan Henry, Rachel Drabble, Rosie Welsh, and Luke Herbert. This group will be an important part of the family’s life over the next few months as they settle into their new city.

After an initial flurry of excited hugs and handshakes everyone moves inside where they begin to eye each other up, unsure where to start, what to do, and how to deal with the language barrier.

The awkwardness quickly dissipates as the volunteers serve lunch and soon everyone is communicating in a mixture of broken English and Spanish and creative gesturing.

"It's changed my perception of refugees."
Rachel Drabble is one of the family's Red Cross refugee support volunteers (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

It's two weeks later and the family has begun adjusting to their new life. 

Today one of their Refugee Support Volunteers, Rachel, shows up to drop off some meat for the family. The dairy farmer shrugs off any gratitude, looking a little embarrassed, and brings her husband inside for a cup of coffee. She looks right at home sitting on the couch under a Colombian flag.

"That first day was a bit awkward but we knew there would be a language barrier," she says. “Our relationship loosened up through us having to be there and constantly in and out of their lives so they've become comfortable having us there.”

The first fortnight in Invercargill has been an absolute whirlwind for everyone involved, the Refugee Support Volunteers, Red Cross staff, and the Calero family themselves.

The four Red Cross Refugee Support Volunteers have shown the family how to navigate public transport and find their way around town, helped enrol Dilan in preschool and the older members of the family in English classes, introduced them to social services organisations, and helped the family familiarise themselves with New Zealand systems and services.

Between these numerous appointments and introductions, the group has also managed to fit in some fun. Flor turned 44 and they celebrated her birthday with a chocolate cake. They’ve also been to Net Fest, a local information day about netball in Southland, and the local A&P Show.

"I want to study at university here in New Zealand."
Brandon Pation is 18 and a keen guitarist, he's already visited his brother's kindy and played for the children (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross).

For Rachel, the experience has already been incredibly rewarding and working in a team has made it a fairly smooth process. She was inspired to volunteer for Red Cross by her teenage daughter who was, at the time, wrestling with her own preconceptions about refugees as part of a school project.

"I guess it's changed my perception of refugees," Rachel says of the experience. “I don’t know what we were expecting when we thought of refugees but I’ve been really surprised at how organised and resourceful they are.

“I’m also surprised of how accepting they are of us. Sometimes we worry we’re intruding but they’re really accepting of us turning up in their lives and helping them.”

"The volunteers are very kind and are there for us all the time."

The following day, Mauricio, Flor, and Brandon are at their first orientation session. New Zealand Red Cross delivers this orientation programme to former refugees around the country during their first six weeks in the community. It covers topics such as budgeting, emergency preparedness, community support, health, and keeping safe in New Zealand.

This first session is covering the New Zealand Police Force and everyone is transfixed as they watch one of their viral videos where members of the team create a percussion beat to fill an awkward silence in the elevator.

"La Policia de Nueva Zelanda," declares Mauricio Convers, a New Zealand Red Cross cross-cultural worker, when the clip finishes. This draws a laugh from the crowd and they move onto the next topic.

Although they're still learning the ropes, it’s fair to say that the family has been making a huge effort to integrate into their new community.

Flor and Dilan on the day they arrived (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross).

Although they didn't choose to leave their country, Mauricio and Flor are making the most of their new life and see it as a chance to start over.

"I had a lot of mixed feelings and I cried," says Flor about the day they arrived. “I was thinking that we arrived to a new life in a very peaceful country and put behind us all the violence and conflict. I feel really happy to start my new life here.”

They jumped at the chance to have a stall at the Southland Multicultural Food Festival not long after they arrived. The empanadas were a hit and many members of the public were keen to know more about the newest members of their community.

Teenage Brandon is a keen guitarist and has been down to Dilan’s kindy to play some music for the kids. He can also often be spotted on one of the football fields near his house playing with some of the local teenagers.

The Caleros may be the first, but the Colombian community in Invercargill will slowly grow over the next couple of years as more refugees are settled in the south.

To find out more about refugee resettlement in New Zealand, head to our website.