Former refugees give back through volunteering

Raza Khadim

It's 7am and the sun has barely peeked over the horizon. But Raza is already at the base of the Hakarimata Summit Track, fastening his phone to his arm ready to tackle the 1349 stairs.

Raza can be found here a few mornings each week. The hike is a way for him to keep fit and clear his mind. It’s an important part of his routine in Hamilton, the city he moved to after coming to New Zealand as part of the country’s refugee quota programme.

Originally from Afghanistan, Raza began working as an interpreter for the New Zealand Defence Force in his home country, an incredibly dangerous job.

"When you work for a defence force in Afghanistan you become part of that and the opposing party will try and get you when they can," he explains. “Interpreters were killed, abducted, slaughtered, everything. Even after they’d left the job they received threatening letters saying they’d turned into infidels.”

After a campaign, the group of Afghan interpreters assisting the New Zealand Defence Force were allowed to come to New Zealand, along with their immediate family members, as part of the refugee quota programme.

They arrived in the country in 2013, and not long after that Raza decided he wanted to use his knowledge and skills to assist Kiwis once again, this time as a Refugee Support Volunteer with New Zealand Red Cross.

He's since supported two families – a Syrian family in 2016, and now he’s supporting two Afghan men in their early-20s.

In 2016 he was paired with another couple from Hamilton and the group has become firm friends, often meeting up long after the placement finished. He says these relationships are a big part of what makes the experience worthwhile.

"You get to know people and make friends, you network will grow, and at the end, the feeling you have after helping, it’s amazing."

"The tangible and intangible support that we can give to a refugee can be life-changing for them."
Raza Khadim has been volunteering with Red Cross since 2016 (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

While having a refugee background is far from a prerequisite for being a Refugee Support Volunteer, Raza believes his experiences have helped him while providing support to the people he's placed with.

"Once you leave your country, your family, your friends, it gets really hard," he says.

We have experienced that, so I know how people feel when they’re new in a country, what to do at the time and what support to give. The tangible and intangible support that we can give to a refugee can be life-changing for them.”

""I'm trying to be what they gave us."
Kamal Adam came to New Zealand as a refugee in 2015 (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross).

Kamal Mohammad Adam

Kamal knows what it's like to be a refugee, twice over. He’s from Somalia but has never been there. Instead he was born in Yemen, a country his parents fled to, seeking refuge from their war-torn homeland. Kamal lived his whole life there as a refugee with few rights or opportunities.

Then war came to Yemen.

Kamal’s family was forced to flee once more and this time ended up in Indonesia, where they lived for the next three years.

In 2015 his family arrived in New Zealand as part of the refugee quota programme.

"I didn’t know there were any countries named New Zealand and I was surprised because I thought Australia was the last country," he says.

"Maybe we can make the world a better place."
Refugee Support Volunteers are a key part of the Red Cross resettlement programmes (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

When he first arrived in Hamilton, Kamal was also surprised to find the city somewhat empty. It wasn't until later that he realised why it was so quiet – it was the Christmas holidays. He laughs at the memory but recalls the difficulties he felt being unable to communicate.

"I had no idea that one day I would speak the language," he says. “I worked hard and it took me one year, maybe one year and a half to learn. I get better every year.”

It was the challenges this language barrier created that led Kamal to become a Red Cross Refugee Support Volunteer.

“When I came here I had help but the volunteer team didn’t speak my language,” he says. “My Mum spoke the language and whenever I wanted to ask something I had to take my Mum to translate what I said.”

He knows firsthand the difference Red Cross can make in the life of a former refugee and tries to emulate it in his volunteer work.

“I’m trying to be what they gave us,” he says. “Even if you say you cannot do anything, even a little thing can be bigger. If you put in a little, and I put in a little, and another person puts in a little, maybe we can make the world a better place.”

"I wanted to be like them and help people."
Raha and Kamal are good friends, both are driven by a desire to help others who are in a similar position they once were (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

Raha Salem

Raha looks at home on Kamal's couch. The two teenagers are good friends, first meeting in Indonesia and then being accepted as part of New Zealand’s refugee quota programme at the same time. Raha says it was a relief to find out she’d know someone in her new home.

"When I first came here I didn’t think I’d know anyone, we have helped each other a lot."

Her Red Cross Refugee Support Volunteers were also incredibly helpful, taking Raha and her family shopping and showing them life in New Zealand.

This kindness inspired Raha to join the programme and do the same for some new arrivals.

“I know how it feels when you come here, because you can’t speak the same language and you’re in a different country so you feel scared and that sort of thing,” she says. “I decided to be a Refugee Support Volunteer to help them and show them what my Red Cross volunteers showed me and also to learn about new cultures and new people.”

""It's good to help others because maybe sometime you’re going to need help from others."
Kamal and Raha have been enjoying their Refugee Support Volunteer placements (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

For her first placement, Raha and her team are supporting a family from Afghanistan. Like many Refugee Support Volunteers, she finds communication the most difficult part. The team has found a way around it though, using Google Translate and sign language to make it work.

And for Raha, the challenges are well worth the difference she's making in someone else’s life.

"It’s good to like to help others because maybe sometime you’re going to need help from others," she says. “That’s why I became a volunteer because I saw how the volunteers were helping us and how kind they are. I wanted to be like them and help people.”

How to help

If you'd like to help some of our newest Kiwis find their way around your community, why not sign up to become a Red Cross refugee support volunteer and become a key part of our refugee resettlement programme.