Every year on June 20 the world honours the courage, resilience and strength of refugees. Global attention is focused not only on the plight of refugees and causes of their exile but also on their determination and contribution they make to their host communities.
The history of refugee resettlement in New Zealand formally began with the intake of 800 Polish people, predominantly orphaned children, during the Second World War in 1944. Since this time New Zealand has continued to receive a range of people from diverse cultures including Eastern Europe, South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East all of whom have added to the richness of Aotearoa.
Anna Costley, from the Newtown Community & Cultural Centre, interviewed Ukyaw Maung and the article was published in the Newtown News. She has given me permission to share his story below.
June 20 is World Refugee Day, and I wanted to celebrate one of the many people with refugee backgrounds living in our community. So I paid a wee visit to the Newtown ESOL class and met Ukyaw Maung, a smiling man from Myanmar who didn't mind me stumbling over my pronunciation, or pointing a camera in his face.
Ukyaw Maung has been living in New Zealand for three years. He is Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist people group from the western coast of Myanmar, who are distinct from the dominant Burmese culture. Under the former oppressive government regime in Myanmar, the Rakhine people held no rights. Their language, Arakanese, was not allowed to be taught or spoken in schools.
"We had no voice. We had to be silent," Ukyaw tells me.
The Rakhine independence Movement has been simmering since the time of British rule, but has been continually repressed by the ruling bodies. Being politically active in any way was violently suppressed by the military rule in Myanmar (which ended just last year). His own brother's involvement in the Rakhine independence movement led officials to interrogate Ukyaw's family. They then seized his fishing boat when he refused to provide information about his brother. Ukyaw was left with no way to make a living, or to feed his family.
Meanwhile, his brother had escaped to Malaysia and been granted refugee status in New Zealand, and 2 years later, Ukyaw and his family were able to follow suit. When I spoke with Ukyaw, his third brother had just been given clearance to enter Malaysia, where he will hopefully be granted refugee status to reunite with his family in New Zealand too.
I ask Ukyaw about his first impressions of New Zealand. "I thought it was very beautiful, but very different," he says. He was particularly struck by the fact that we have electricity 24/7 - in Rakhine state they only have three hours per day!
What was the hardest thing about settling in to NZ? "Learning to speak English, and finding a job," he replies straight away. But these are hurdles that he is well on his way to overcoming. Currently Ukyaw spends his mornings learning English in Newtown. He also has a part-time job cleaning at the Compassion Centre in town. Ukyaw lives in Newtown with his wife and three children, including a newborn daughter. He whips out his phone to show me a photo of her (I can confirm that she is excessively cute).
"She is two months and four days old," he tells me proudly. Her first name means 'starlight' in english, and she is the first of his children to be born in New Zealand. And the last - her middle name translates to 'last one'.
"No more children now," he says with a big smile.
I ask Ukyaw what he likes best about Newtown.
"I like this English class, and the library, and the zoo," he replies. "It's a good area." He's a great walker, and whenever possible he likes to pick up his rods and walk over to Evans Bay to go fishing.
"Would you like to return to Myanmar one day?" I ask Ukyaw.
"Maybe in ten years, when there is a new government, and democracy, I would like to see my father and mother," he replies. But only for a holiday, he adds - Newtown is very much his home right now.
We would like to add more refugee stories. Please contact us!