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  • Michael Roman

Hard times

I first met Kabwea and Koratika in 2001 as a Peace Corps volunteer. They lived next to Rubenang and volunteered their oven for our initial night of pizza. During the summer of 2004, I worked with Kabwea on multiple HIV/AIDS public health interventions for Kiribati students. Reuniting in 2010, Kabwea and Koratika were working on attaining New Zealand citizenship. Koratika started the conversation by recalling her first time in New Zealand.

I first came in 1998 for schooling. On scholarship for a nursing degree from the Kiribati government, the first semester was difficult. With children, adjusting to a new country and a student life was challenging. My family joined me in 1999. Sometimes my husband sent money from Kiribati to afford to live in New Zealand. Money was how we survived since the scholarship was not enough for everyone, and we had no family in New Zealand. Schools were better in New Zealand, and they learned much more than they would have back home. Nevertheless, life was hard, especially when they started school. The rent, the kids’ lunches, fees, uniforms, everything cost money; we struggled.
We had to learn how to budget and save money. Sometimes we bought tins and ate just one tin a day. The kids knew we didn’t have a lot of money and they understood. When we couldn’t afford petrol for the car, they took the free bus. I qualified for free transportation since I was also a student. All five of us were coping with new everything. Life was hard, but it was good. Everything we had, was given to us; our beds our clothes even the car we had was given to us by others.

Her husband, sitting right beside her, pointed out that non-relatives and her school helped greatly. “They gave us furniture, plates dishes, everything. All for free! They gave us great assistance and didn’t expect anything in return, and that really taught us something important about New Zealand.”

I finished my degree in 2001 and returned to Kiribati for five years before going back to New Zealand for my nursing master’s degree. In 2006, my number was drawn in the annual PAC lottery. That’s how all of us, minus my husband, came to New Zealand. I lodged the application without him because he was traveling at the time.

Her husband chimed in,

I ended up going to New Zealand that same year, but not as a PAC recipient. I was under a work permit and then under a family partnership allowance. This year, (2010) we were thinking about becoming citizens. Koratika and the kids will be eligible in 2011, I won’t be eligible until 2014.
I think the New Zealand government did a lot to help us out, being I was away from the country when she lodged the application. We knew what we were getting into when we came under the PAC because we went through it before. It is different for those leaving Kiribati for the first time. They don’t understand that there will be hard times. There is help for new migrants, but it has a stigma that keeps many people away. The government does things for migrants, but they need to fine-tune them to different populations, not just the big ones. They need to hire the right people who speak all languages.

Koratika picked up,

That is where the Kiribati community groups come in. I think we all know the struggle, and we can relate. I, as a student with a family, had to depend on money. You pay for water, rent, electricity and we didn’t have a car then. Other Kiribati families were struggling too. Some struggled to get permanent residency, and many hired lawyers who charged more for their services than they had access to. Back in those days, we fundraised to buy a van and provided transport for all who needed it. As more Kiribati families arrived, they began to settle near one another for social engagement, security, and employment opportunities. In Kiribati, you can go ask for anything from a neighbor, but here, oh if you go to a Kiwi (New Zealander) neighbor asking for sugar or tea they will give it to you, but a place to sleep or eat is no good… no good here.

Kiribati communities enabled the development of informal safety networks. As new migrants arrived, the amount of Kiribati communities grew to help new migrants adjust. As I collected more stories, I learned of the many concessions migrants made to meet new challenges and unprecedented prejudices.

When we came to New Zealand, we couldn’t communicate, since English was our second language. We tried to talk, but maybe our broken English made people treat us poorly. We felt we were treated differently, maybe second-class citizens, for who we were, islanders. Some people were racist. I felt it at work when I didn’t know how to do certain things because everything was new to me. When I would ask for help, I was treated like I was stupid. After some time, I learned not to talk to certain people. Even elderly patients in the rest house treated us differently. Some didn’t want brown people, to take care of them.

These experiences created a shared sense of discrimination all immigrants identify with to some degree. “It was as if we learned in our hearts how it felt to be helped and now we want to help others who are going through similar situations as we did when Koratika and I first arrived. We know that the arrival and the first few months is when migrants need the most.” Kabwea and Koratika housed my uncle and brother-in-law for almost one year when they arrived in New Zealand.



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©2020 by Michael Roman