Opinion: Devastating refugee photos not telling the full story

24 Sep, 2015
Just like us: getting ready for life in New Zealand at AUT's Centre for Refugee Education

Maria Hayward is a senior lecturer at AUT’s Centre for Refugee Education – part of the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre that helps prepare refugees for life in New Zealand.

Our news is full of stories of hopelessness. Of exhausted, bedraggled refugees fleeing from one hopeless situation only to be met by different desperate circumstances. On one hand, I am pleased these stories are being told. I am pleased New Zealanders are aware of the level of need that is out there. I am pleased that our government has been moved to take some action. I am pleased that people realise that this is a story that must not be ignored.

But I worry too, that when we look at the pictures of those exhausted parents and children huddled with their few meagre possessions, we see “refugees”. We see a group that is nothing like us. We look at them and we make assumptions about their lives based on the way they are being forced to live right now.

I have worked at the AUT Centre for Refugee Education for over a decade and I know that the people who come through this centre are not “nothing like us” but in many, many ways “just like us”.
I always remember the words of a young Rwandan girl who said “You don’t start off being a refugee”. Like many of the Syrian refugees who are now without homes, she lived a normal life with her family until her country erupted into violence.

“One minute I had a home, and the next I was stateless. When you become a refugee within a blink of an eye you lose much more than your loved ones, your home, your livelihood. You lose your dignity, your humanity, your identity, your whole being gets stripped off you. The refugee world – a world that once seemed so far from us, without knowing that tomorrow it would become ours – knows no colour, race, religion, gender or age, not even education or professional or social status. It does not discriminate.”

So, when we look at the photos, I hope we can remember that these people had lives before they were forced to flee and that is what they are seeking now – an opportunity to rebuild that life.

Where there is resistance to accepting refugees, one of the arguments is that refugees simply want to come to New Zealand for a better life. In fact, they come for a life – they come for life as opposed to death. Gruesome as that sounds, that’s the reality. They flee because they fear that they will not survive in the environment they are in. They just want to be able to be safe. They want their families to be safe. They want all the same things we would want if we were to walk in their shoes.

My job is a privilege because I see these families once they have been granted that safety and they are able to take the first steps toward rebuilding their lives. The moment a person enters New Zealand under a refugee programme then they are not a refugee anymore, so there are no refugees where I work, just people like us.

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