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  • Michael Roman

Leaving Home

Updated: Jun 6

In 1986, 123 Kiribati-born individuals were living in New Zealand. Most arrived through small visa waiver employment schemes. By 1991, the government of New Zealand established larger employment-based migration schemes for Pacific island nations. The success of these more programs varied, and as a result, underwent significant restructuring, which led to the establishment of the Pacific Access Category (PAC) in 2002. The labor migration scheme permits 75 qualified Kiribati citizens, chosen in annual lotteries, to migrate to New Zealand. Touted as a bi-lateral win for both nations as New Zealand sought laborers, and Kiribati sought employment opportunities. Again, this was how my Kiribati family began their migrating to New Zealand.


My uncle, Nooti, chosen in the 2007 drawing, had less than one year to find a New Zealand sponsoring employer. He left Kiribati in 2008 and started working as a caregiver in a retirement community for $12.00 an hour. The weather was cold, the food was different, and English was everywhere. Life was different, and his Kiribati ways did not make adjustments easy. The existence of rest homes for the elderly was not a thing in Kiribati as elders are the most central and influential people of the family. In many instances, elders run not only the family but also the village. They hold significant power in communal life and family decisions. In New Zealand, however, they rarely saw their families locked up in the rest homes having little control over daily personal activities and decisions.


As different as this experience was, it offered a once in a lifetime opportunity for him and his family. Networking proved invaluable to New Zealand acclimation. As in most cases, he acquired the position through a friend who migrated to New Zealand several PAC cycles prior. In September of 2008, another family member left for New Zealand. Like my uncle, he utilized the informal network to find a job in the agriculture industry. Both stayed with others from Kiribati, who had established themselves in New Zealand while saving to bring their families to New Zealand.


Though opportunities were plenty in New Zealand, Tanimakin, my aunt, did not want to leave abruptly. She had a good job in Kiribati and could send money to support him while adjusting. “I sent money for a used car, and to help him contribute to the household. It was not much, but it was something. When he started working full time, he took care of the costs, but I still sent money since he didn’t get all the hours he needed some weeks.”


Uncle’s story was synonymous with many other PAC stories: applying, waiting, searching for jobs through informal networking, migrating, staying with friends or family while getting on your feet, and bringing over the family to start a new life in New Zealand. By the time uncle Nooti left, the informal network was a well-oiled machine. This was not the case for early migrants; they faced a much different social landscape upon arrival.


The earliest migrants came in the mid to late 1980s under an agricultural temporary work scheme. Early migrants lived a life filled mainly with seclusion from other I-Kiribati. This was particularly challenging, coming from a society that lived through communal interaction. This, in addition to all the other adjustments, made life especially hard for early migrant community members. The secluded life migrants faced would eventually fade as more migrants arrived.

Two of the earliest migrants, Maibibi and Matarena, arrived in the late eighties. Recalling their migration to New Zealand, they recounted painful, sad, and confusing times.


New Zealand employers came to Kiribati in search of workers. They told the government they needed fruit pickers, and they would take care of workers who went with them. It was an opportunity to help my family. I signed up. They changed their story when we arrived in New Zealand. They did not take care of us as they said they would. There were twelve of us, and we were all forced to live in a two-bedroom house. Eight lived in the garage, and four lived in the house. They said here is your garage. Now share, and that was it. That was how the employers took care of us. In Kiribati, they said we were going to have our rooms. They lied then, and they still lie today. On the south island, an employer had over 20 people living in one house earlier this year (2010). They know how to sweet talk the Kiribati government by saying how much they need workers and how they will pay all the transportation costs. The government thinks it is good, and they go along with it.
When we started, the employer took money from our paychecks to compensate for the flight costs they said they would cover. It was a big trap. I didn’t have any place to go, and I was stuck because it was now my life.

Her husband, Maibibi interrupted,


That’s the Kiribati culture, though, ten or twenty people in one house, it’s ok because they are family. Her situation, though, with everyone thrown into one house was not ok. But what could they do? It’s better now because there are many Kiribati families here, they help the migrant workers who are here on the RSE (Regional Seasonal Employment scheme). Kiribati Community members provide social events and take them on trips when they have free time.

Our culture makes it better because we help each other out but imagine when there was nobody here. Who are you going to cry to? It was tough for us, but we were lucky. We got jobs that gave us enough money to buy our own house. We quickly learned we needed money to live here, and we were lucky.


Maibibi and Matarena were the first migrants to Hamilton, there would be several others recruited by foreign employers and eventually make their way to Hamilton. Recruited by New Zealanders seeking to start up a childcare center, Taakura, along with three others, arrived in New Zealand in September of 1999.


We didn’t know all the details of the childcare business when we left Kiribati. People had come recruiting workers and arranging plane tickets for the following week. We left Kiribati for New Zealand with hopes of sending money back home to help our families out. The plane arrived in New Zealand very late, forcing all three of us to sleep in the airport when we arrived. We didn’t speak English fluently and were very scared that night. The people starting the childcare business picked us up the next morning and informed us of a need to be licensed.
To pay for our schooling, and plane tickets we worked without pay for almost one year. Once the debt was paid off, I decided to find a new job. I never looked for a job before, but eventually found seasonal positions in the agriculture industry. I worked for years, rotating from season to season before getting a permanent position in a rest home. Things were going so well until I became pregnant. Having a child in New Zealand wasn’t like having a child in Kiribati. I did not have any family to help me. All I could rely on was money. Here, money is life, and life is money. You need it to survive, and with a baby, I couldn’t work.

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©2020 by Michael Roman