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July 17, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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The Things We Share

As a Pākehā kid, when I first learnt to mihi, I found that building a sense of my own whakapapa was a kind of patchwork, something I could stitch together by pulling threads from family stories. The waka I chose, or borrowed from my father, was called the Wanganella.

Arrival of ship, Wanganella, in Auckland Harbour. 1933. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Arrival of ship, Wanganella, in Auckland Harbour. 1933. Alexander Turnbull Library.

 

That was the ship that brought my paternal grandmother and her family to New Zealand from Germany, a short month before the outbreak of World War Two. It was certainly the most significant ship in my heritage from where I stood. Strangely, my German history fit easily here. I always felt closest to this “foreign” part of myself when speaking Māori, a language and oratory grounded here in Aotearoa. Unlike the arguments I found myself falling into in my English-language classes about why it was important to me, my interest in my history was encouraged and never questioned here.

At the time I was piecing together my mihi I had already been learning German for a number of years. My grandmother Marei, a former primary school teacher, had patiently taught me some sentences but insisted that she only spoke Kinderdeutschchildren’s German. She was only three when she arrived in New Zealand and had all her formal education in New Zealand schools, so felt more at home in English in many ways. I hungered after more than simple expressions, and over the years I had a series of wonderful teachers, eventually enrolling in a correspondence school German course and finally a major in German at Victoria.

My decision to pursue the language was intriguing to people. I’d chosen a language often characterised as harsh, difficult, and one which of course carried the heavy history of Holocaust. So I found myself frequently explaining my history.

My family were German-Jews. This is the most succinct explanation, though the reality is more complex. My family were German-Jews in the eyes of the Third Reich. My great-grandmother had been brought up in Berlin, not Orthodox, but very connected through her parents to the rest of her Jewish community. She converted to Catholicism at eighteen and later married my great-grandfather who had been brought up Catholic.

Yet it was Jewishness that would force them to leave their home in search of a new and safer life. Identity labels ascribed at either the will or grace of others were a feature of their story. My great-grandparents were expected to report to police frequently when they first arrived in New Zealand. Having fled from Germany they were suspected by authorities, because they might be spies for that same country. So, the road, which ended in their naturalised citizenship, was an uneasy one — despite New Zealand wishing to view itself as a gracious place that opened its arms to refugees.

It is them I think of when looking at global politics today. I attended the Women’s March with a sign saying I was marching as the queer-disabled-granddaughter of a refugee. I thought of them when looking at the images of JFK airport. Closer to home, I thought of them as we debated our own refugee quota and when our Prime Minister failed, in my view, to respond to Trump’s refugee ban with adequate energy. The lack of response prompted me to write my first ever letter to the Prime Minister. We see the issue in such a different light from one another that I am skeptical whether my letter had any impact. I received a reply on his behalf assuring me that the Office of the Prime Minister were satisfied with their own level of response.

However, I felt an urgency to convey that there is a heart-wrenchingly human side to the issue. This was once my family, and could well be me.

It is easy to get lost when important debates like these are discussed in language of quotas and everything is so carefully measured. While some of this may be prudent, in terms of making sure we are providing for all citizens, it can also be a way of hiding. What we lose behind the statistics is that these are the lives of real people. Real people are always going to be harder to discuss; they cannot be as easily categorised or dismissed as numbers. I read somewhere that statistics are people with the tears wiped away. Real people have to be looked in the eyes.

I think that braver and more empathetic leadership when responding to a refugee crisis or developing an immigration policy with heart requires putting real people back into the discussion. For a start, I would like to hear the word “people” used more by our politicians and media than quota, group, or population.

I come back to the people present in my own history. My great-grandparents Maria and John Dronke were exceptionally grateful and affectionate citizens of a country which, in accepting them, had saved their lives and the lives of their children. My great-grandparents went on to make significant contributions to the arts. Maria worked as a drama teacher and in later life completed a Master’s in German poetry at Victoria University of Wellington. John was a founding member of the National Orchestra and later went on to work in the law as he had done in Germany, making contributions to New Zealand’s original patent law.

This is another aspect of the debate I do not feel is highlighted enough: what we stand to gain from willing contributors to this country, and, furthermore, their right to contribute. So often, in a neoliberal climate that characterises human nature as inherently self-interested, we appear to measure the worth of people in negative economic terms: what they will cost the state. This discourse is heard in debates about many areas of life. It seems particularly loud in relation to the issue of refugee resettlement. It seems imperative to me that the debate needs changing. The other side of the coin is the ways in which our country could be enriched.

Recently, I went to an event that involved both refugee and native-born New Zealanders sharing food from their childhoods. We met each other over this shared meal and the stories that come with it. I introduced myself briefly and indicated the packets of Jaffas I’d brought along as evidence of where I’d come from: a very safe, Wellington-based childhood full of rainy days at the movies. Many other people had brought family dishes passed down through generations.  

My grandmother too had identified first and foremost as a New Zealander. The last election she participated in, she had cast a vote for the then fledgling Mana Party due to its commitment to upholding Treaty values, values generally summarised as a commitment to biculturalism. Faced with a necessarily multicultural society, there seems to be a strain of fear that the values and aspirations that new arrivals have for the country will be radically and destructively different to the aspirations of those living here. This neatly ignores that all of us at some point in history were descended from newcomers. And maybe this is where we need to meet refugee resettlement as an issue too; face-to-face over the things we share.

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