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We all do it: complain about how hard life is. But there are people whose lives have been infinitely harder than ours. To get a bit of perspective, we spoke with Ibrahim Omer, a refugee from the country of Eritrea in Africa. His story is an inspiration. He was sent to war at age 18, escaped to neighbouring Sudan, was detained by the Sudanese government, escaped the conflict in Darfur, and came to New Zealand where he had to escape again from a gang neighbourhood. He started as a cleaner at Vic but is now a student, and an active one at that. He’s fought for and won higher pay for workers as part of the Living Wage campaign, and this year, he ran for a position on the VUWSA Executive. Despite the obstacles he has faced, Ibrahim remains upbeat and is one of the kindest humans we’ve ever met. Do yourself a favour and read his story.
D&C: Tell us a bit about your story.
I: Originally, I’m from a country called Eritrea. A lot of people haven’t heard of it because it’s a new country: it’s only 23 years old. I grew up in the capital city, Asmara. Everything is Italian. They used to call it Small Rome. That’s where I grew up.
Once I turned 18, I had to go to compulsory National Service before I could go to university. After that, there was a war that broke out. I meant to go to National Service for just one year and six months, but I had to go to war. We are a small country with a small population, so basically everyone had to go. I was told to go to the front and I was lucky I didn’t get hurt. A lot of my friends died.
After the ceasefire was signed, we were able to go back to study. Basically, the government is a dictatorship; we have the worst government in the world now. The world doesn’t know much about it because it’s a very closed country: no international media, nothing. Eritrea is one of the highest refugee-producing countries in the world. If you asked a question about the constitution or democracy at university, they took you away to concentration camps. Three or four students died and a lot of people were hospitalised.
Because there is no future, I decided to leave. My family gave me some money and I crossed the border into Sudan. There, I lived in a UNHCR [the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] camp. They interviewed me and they found my story very acceptable and they gave me refugee status.
My English was a little bit better than the others, and they were having trouble talking to refugees from Eritrea, so they asked me to help them and offered me a job. But my friends were telling me that money is no problem, we can help each other, we can go to Libya and then the Mediterranean Sea. But I knew it was dangerous. A lot of my friends died at sea.
So I took the job with UNHCR and I drove from camp to camp. Life was good. But then suddenly, Sudan began to make trouble. There was a war in Darfur going on at that time. To cover up their failures, they blame international organisations and say we’re spies. There was UN pressure on them because of the war. They targeted me because they have bad relations with Eritrea. They said I had to leave the country within a few days.
If I couldn’t stay in Sudan, I had nowhere to go. The only option was to go back to Eritrea, but the police there have a shoot-to-kill policy if they find people trying to cross the border. And if I made it back into Eritrea, I would have been accused of treason. They take you to a military base and then God knows what happens. A lot of people tortured, a lot of people murdered.
I was then detained in Sudan for quite a while. The UNHCR said: give us some time, and we will find a place where we can send him. They let me go, but I was being watched and followed so I couldn’t work anymore. The UNHCR sent my file to USA and Canada, but they took so long.
Then, suddenly came New Zealand. New Zealand takes 750 refugees per year. They asked if I wanted to go to New Zealand. I didn’t know anything about the country, so I googled it. The first thing that impressed me was the safety and the peace. So I took the opportunity and came to New Zealand. I spent six weeks in a refugee camp in Auckland. I knew a guy who was sponsored by a family in Sudan and he said that Wellington is beautiful. I came here in June 2008.
My plan was to study. I passed the English assessments very well, but then came the difficult financial part. It’s really hard when you don’t have any money or any income or any support. I was on a benefit, but after paying rent and food, there is no money. So I looked for a job. The main thing about getting the benefit is that it felt like I was begging. It wasn’t very nice, so I told them: give me a job.
And then I got a security job in Upper Hutt. I was living in Lower Hutt in a place filled with gangs. They were aggressive, they’d party all the time. They were okay with me, but I wanted to move because I came looking for peace. The big drug dealer living next to me, he was always fighting and screaming. As soon as I got the security job, they followed me to my work and four huge people assaulted me, broke my nose. I talked to the Police and the officer said to me: what are you doing living in Pomare? That place isn’t for you. So I resigned from the company and moved to Wellington.
As soon as I came to Wellington, I got a cleaning job in one of the hostels. And then came a work opportunity at Victoria University as a cleaner at nighttime. I had to work two jobs because one wasn’t enough. I saved some money for study. For a few years, life was a struggle.
Last year, we had the mayoral candidates’ debate here and I was asked to talk about the Living Wage. At the same time, I was given a supervisor position here at Victoria University and I started getting paid $18. It was a big difference. I saved some money and enrolled at Vic. It’s always been a dream for me to come study. And now all I can say is living is a dream.
This journey must have been incredibly difficult.
Yes. At the start, people were telling me not to leave Eritrea. And then in the camps, I was crying all the time. I was young. I was 19 when I left home. I was scared of dying. You hear about the Sinai desert and smugglers kidnapping you. They hold you ransom from your families, and when they can’t pay, they kill you and take your organs and sell them on the black market. So, probably, my destiny was to be killed.
It was hard at UNHCR to be always watched by the Sudanese authorities. I didn’t know what the spying was for. Then I was detained and interrogated, asking me questions all the time, putting me under pressure, telling me if I just say yes they will let me go.
And then the opportunity of New Zealand came. It has been a challenge because it is a completely different society. Even though the people are very open-minded, very accepting people. It’s the massive culture difference, and the language is hard. Even though I speak English, I struggle to hear because Kiwis speak so fast. Now I am okay, but back in the day, it was really hard. Even though I integrated fast, it was still a struggle. Everyday’s a lesson.
Have you gone back to visit your family in Eritrea?
I can’t go back to Eritrea. When I came to New Zealand, we started a campaign called Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change to bring international attention to Eritrean abuses of human rights. We did a good job, and now there are sanctions on Eritrea. But because I was part of that, I am on a blacklist. Basically, once you cross the border illegally, you are a fugitive. The day you go back, you will be arrested, tortured, killed. I haven’t seen my family in ten years.
Have you spoken with them?
Yeah, I’ve spoken to them on the phone. But they have to be careful talking to me and I have to be careful about what I say.
What are you studying now?
Political Science and Development Studies.
What do you want to do when you finish?
I don’t know. If I want to work in New Zealand politics, it will be hard because of the language, even though I speak reasonably good English. I hope to end up working for organisations like UNHCR. I love politics. I’ve always wanted to do politics.
Can you vote in the election?
I already have! Once you stay in New Zealand for a year as a permanent resident, you are entitled to vote. So I voted this year. And I also helped Grant Robertson, who is my local MP. Now and then, I go door-knocking. I believe that Labour policy fits my aspirations as a refugee. The inequality level is getting high in NZ, the pay gap is getting high. I believe Labour’s policy can at least try to bridge that gap, while National is not even trying. That’s why I decided to vote Labour.
You mentioned the Living Wage campaign; what was your involvement in that?
I was a delegate for the cleaners: I would speak for them whenever things went wrong. I would communicate to the company on behalf of them. One of the organisers asked me to come and speak at the candidates’ debate and I volunteered myself because I felt the Living Wage would make a difference to people like myself.
I was getting paid $13.75. Then, once I got paid $18, it was a huge difference. I dropped one of the jobs, and I was taking it easy to myself for the first time. Because before, I was doing 80 hours, working six days. By the time it was Saturday at 6 o’clock, I’d come home so exhausted, crash on the couch and not wake up ’til the next day. It was really really hard. There’s no life, there’s no time for hanging out with friends or going to the movies or playing football.
I believe the Living Wage can help people to be alive, to engage as active citizens socially. I don’t have kids, I’m single, but if you do have them it is very hard for parents to see their kids. By the time they’re home, the kids are sleeping. I see a lot of families struggling.
So I volunteered myself and did a lot of work at the Wellington City Council. Mayor Celia Wade-Brown was very supportive. I worked with Rory McCourt [last year’s VUWSA President] and Rick Zwaan [next year’s VUWSA President], and they did some great work. After a lot of work, the City Council began to pay its 450 employees a Living Wage of $18.40 this year.
Before the Living Wage, I knew a man who was expecting a baby and at the same time he was working 70 hours to try to save up. He would never see his baby. But as soon as this opportunity came, he could drop down to 40 hours and see his baby. And that’s how the Living Wage can make a difference.
The next thing is to make Victoria University a Living Wage employer. I’m a member of a number of committees that are trying to get that kicked off.
You ran for VUWSA this year: tell us about your decision to do that.
It’s all politics. I love politics. I’d been doing a lot of campaigning for the Living Wage, and I thought I could bring some expertise and diversity to the organisation. A friend of mine said I should try it. I thought: “I’m not going to lose anything. If I make it, fine. If I didn’t, at least I tried. At least I tested democracy.” I didn’t do a lot of campaigning because I was tied up with assignments and other commitments, but a lot of people supported me. I lost, but it feels like a win for me. I tried. More than a thousand people voted for me.
Will you go again next year?
I don’t know yet, I will decide next year.
Do you think New Zealand does enough for refugees when they come to New Zealand?
For people like me, I knew someone else, so I had the chance to integrate and talk to people and ask for a job. But a lot of people can’t do that. I know the Government is doing its best, but at the same time, I feel like not enough is being done to integrate those people into society.
We should encourage them and teach them so they can be integrated and able to be independent. I know people who have been here for more than ten years and they are dependent on the government, but they just want to be able to do something on their own in their lives. They don’t like being dependent on taxpayers’ money, but they have no choice.
Do you think taking in 750 refugees a year is too low?
At the moment, yes. There is a lot of crisis around the world, a lot of war, so countries are taking more refugees. But New Zealand sticks to 750. I think New Zealand could do better. Make it at least a thousand. A lot of Eritreans are in prison in neighbouring countries when their only crime is being a refugee. I think especially we should let in more women and children. But the programme is usually very helpful for people who do make it here.
What would you say to the average student at Vic who has grown up in New Zealand?
I’ve met a lot of young people who always complain. They say life sucks, life’s so hard. I say to them: you really don’t know what you have and what other people have gone through. You are in heaven. New Zealand is heaven. I believe if you don’t see anything bad, if you’ve never been through any difficulty, you don’t appreciate what you have.
My advice to young people is that you have everything, so just take advantage of it. If you want to see what people are going through, go to Africa, go to Asia, go to the places that are going through hard times. Go and experience it and come back to New Zealand and see. That’s when you will understand what you have. Open your eyes, stop complaining, grab opportunities and take them.