A big change

New Zealand Red Cross spoke to three former refugee teenagers in Dunedin about their new lives. 

Wafaa Haroura, 14

Wafaa Haroura is nervous. She's been asked to do an interview about her experiences as a refugee in a new country and she’s never done one before.

The teenager is originally from Syria and was only 8-years-old when her and her family were forced to flee their home. Her family was among the first refugees to be settled in Dunedin, a relatively new resettlement location. Along with 12 other families, they touched down in their new homes in March 2016 to much fanfare and celebration from the community.

The camera switches on and any trace of nervousness disappears as Wafaa articulates the highs and lows of the past two years.

"When I came here it was hard with the language and to communicate with others," she says. “But when two years passed it was like we became comfortable and now it’s so easy so it’s changed a lot.”

"The schools are so different and so free."
Wafaa has been in New Zealand for two years and says she's loving her new life here (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

Wafaa has been excelling at school and made a close group of friends, although she got off to a shaky start with some of the girls in her grade.

"When I was in intermediate I entered the school and some of the kids were talking about me. I could understand them but I couldn't say anything because I didn’t know how to say the words.

One day they were laughing about a joke and I laughed to. They were shocked and looked at me and asked me if I could understand them and I told them 'yes’. They were sorry because they were mean to me and talking about stuff because I’m wearing a headscarf. They’re my friends now, we went from friends to best friends now."

Wafaa is passionate about textiles and photography. She often takes pictures along the beaches around Dunedin and instigated a knitting club with some community members and students from her school. Although few shared her knowledge of crochet and she found herself teaching some of the most experienced knitters her talent.

Like any teenager, she's struggling with the decision about what to study when she finishes school but she's thinking about becoming a doctor and very excited about biology.

"In school I like to dissect some stuff like the heart or the eye and I wasn’t scared at all," she says with a smile. "My teacher was surprised because I didn’t look scared or have any reaction."

“Before we didn’t have much stuff and even the schools are so different and so free. There’s a lot of subjects you can do from art to food and technology, anything you can choose.”

When asked what she likes about Dunedin she breaks into a big grin.

“Pretty much everything except the weather.”

"I want to help people, it's my dream."

Bashar Albdewi, 17

A group of teenage boys wander into Dunedin's Edgar Stadium ready for their weekly futsal match. Tonight, they’re paired against a group of men who look much older, but the high school students hold their own, winning the match 16-14.

Bashar Albdewi is the tallest of the lot and gives the team a quick pep talk in the break. The high school student is relatively new to the game, having only been introduced to it when he came to New Zealand as a refugee in 2016.

"In Syria we weren’t allowed [to play sport] because of the war," he explains.

Bashar and his family were forced to flee their home in Syria in 2011 when he was just 11. They went to Lebanon where they lived as refugees for the next five years. There are more than a million refugees living in Lebanon and life is far from easy.

For Bashar, it meant he had to start working to help his family get by. He took a job in a factory where he would work from 8am to 10pm each day.

"I had no time to see my friends, I just worked and got money and took the money to my family," he says.

Life has changed a lot over the past two years and Bashar says that touching down in New Zealand was the start of something new and exciting.

“I was just thinking about building a new life and planning a new future.”

Looking to the future, Bashar says he's keen to study nursing once he finishes high school, smiling broadly as he thinks about the possibility.

"I like it and I want to help people, it’s my dream."

He finishes by asking to read a piece of writing he’s done, showing the scope of his experiences and ambition.

Today I'm as a refugee but in the future, I'm a person who writes about his successful life and assists people who need help. Respect to all the refugees around this world. Refugees are not people you see it on TV or the news. Refugees are people who have more experiences and more patience. I don't mean I'm perfect or I'm more clever than you. The difference between me and you is I'm trying very hard to get what I want and I suffered to start a new life. I accepted anything from the worst things until the good stuff came, I'm satisfied with all the stuff. Don't give up, be you, accept the hard work and be patient until you achieve your goal and your mission.

"This country is for good education."
Melad has impressed his teachers and community members with his piano skills (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

The music block at Taieri College is filled with the sound of kids practicing. In one of the rooms at the back of the building is Melad Karim, tapping away on the piano.

You wouldn't know it from the music but Melad has only been playing piano for just over a year. His interest in music was piqued when he and his family were living as refugees in Malaysia. Melad’s school had a piano and he would often steal away to have a go on it.

"I don’t know piano basics, I would love to learn how the notes work," he says.” I learn songs from YouTube, 5-10 minutes and I can learn a song by listening to them and matching the keys with the sounds.”

After five years in Malaysia, his family was offered resettlement in New Zealand in 2017. They now live in Dunedin where Melad’s musical abilities have been making a huge impression on his teachers.

“I would love to be [a professional piano player],” he says with a grin. “My family is very supportive.”

Word has reached the wider community about Melad’s skills and someone donated a piano so he could practice on a more regular basis.

Although Melad misses Syria terribly, he’s happy with his new life and New Zealand and loves the opportunities he’s given at school.

“New Zealand is a quiet place for a student to sit and study, this country is for good education.”

Learn more about refugee resettlement in New Zealand by visiting our website.