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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Leaving home

In 1986, the population of Kiribati-born individuals residing in New Zealand numbered 123, primarily arriving through smaller employment initiatives with visa-waiver privileges. Recognizing the varying outcomes of these initial efforts, the New Zealand government embarked on larger-scale employment-driven migration programs targeting Pacific nations within five years. However, the efficacy of these expanded programs was inconsistent, prompting significant restructuring.

A pivotal moment came in 2002 with the establishment of the Pacific Access Category (PAC). This innovative employment-driven migration framework enabled 75 qualified Kiribati citizens, selected through annual lotteries, to relocate to New Zealand. The PAC scheme represented a bilateral triumph, fulfilling New Zealand's demand for skilled workers while providing valuable employment prospects for Kiribati's populace.

For families like mine, the PAC agreement became a gateway to new opportunities, facilitating their migration to New Zealand in 2007. Through this mutually beneficial arrangement, both nations forged a pathway toward economic cooperation and the promotion of cross-border employment mobility.

In 2007, my host uncle, Nooti, took a decisive step by submitting his application. When his number was drawn in the lottery, he, as the principal applicant, faced the daunting task of securing employment within a year and commencing his journey to New Zealand. Departing Kiribati in 2008, he embarked on a new chapter, finding employment as a caregiver in a retirement community for $12.00 an hour.

Transitioning to life in New Zealand presented myriad challenges. The weather was notably colder, the cuisine vastly different, and the ubiquity of English language pervasive. Nooti, like many I-Kiribati, grappled with the cultural and social adjustments of his new environment. His inherent Kiribati shyness compounded the difficulty of acclimating to unfamiliar surroundings.

The presence of retirement communities in New Zealand was a revelation for Nooti and others accustomed to the revered status of elders in Kiribati society. In contrast, where elders hold significant influence, the concept of elder care homes was a stark departure from the norm.

In Kiribati, elders wield considerable influence, not only within their families but also in the broader community. A Kiribati unimwane or unaine plays a pivotal role in village affairs and familial matters, guiding decisions and shaping communal life. However, in New Zealand, the dynamics shifted drastically. Elders found themselves distanced from their families, lacking the same level of authority and control over daily personal choices. Despite these profound differences, embracing this new lifestyle presented Nooti and his family with a unique opportunity, one they could only experience once in a lifetime.

Networking proved to be invaluable for Nooti's migration and adjustment to life in New Zealand. He secured his job opportunity through a friend who had previously migrated to New Zealand through the PAC scheme. Similarly, in September 2008, my host brother-in-law also migrated to New Zealand under the PAC scheme and leveraged informal migrant networks to secure employment in a tomato-glass house. Both relatives stayed with Steven for an extended period while they saved up for their families to join them in New Zealand.

Although the opportunities in New Zealand were promising, Nooti's wife, Jane, was hesitant to move so soon. She held a stable job in Kiribati and could financially support him from afar. However, as Nooti settled into life in New Zealand, I offered financial assistance to ease his transition. I sent money for a used car to facilitate his commute to work and contributed to household expenses at Steven's home. While my contributions were modest, they helped cover food bills and other essentials. As Nooti transitioned to full-time work, his income became more self-sufficient, but I continued to send occasional financial support during weeks when he didn't receive enough hours.

Uncle's experience mirrored that of countless other Kiribati migrants under the PAC scheme. Each applicant submitted their paperwork to the New Zealand High Commission, awaited the results, and leaned on family connections for job leads and initial accommodations. By the time my host uncle migrated, this reliance on kinship ties and informal networks had become ingrained. However, early migrants encountered a vastly different social landscape upon their arrival.

The earliest members of the Morningside community arrived in the mid to late 1980s under an agricultural temporary work scheme. Their experience diverged significantly from that of more recent migrants who entered through the well-established PAC and Recognized Seasonal Employment (RSE) schemes. These early migrants led a life of isolation from other I-Kiribati, a stark contrast to the communal existence they were accustomed to in their homeland. Living an individualistic lifestyle proved challenging, particularly given their societal background. It wasn't until later arrivals joined them that this solitary existence began to shift. However, these early migrants endured years of seclusion before seeing more I-Kiribati migrate to Morningside. This, coupled with other adjustments, made life exceptionally difficult for the pioneers of the migrant community. Notably, two of the earliest migrants resided just streets away from my family's house.

Martin and Mandy arrived in the late 1980s, and they tied the knot in the early 1990s. Today, they have four grown children. Reflecting on their migration to New Zealand, they recall a challenging, somber, and bewildering adjustment period. Mandy vividly remembers how New Zealand employers had come to Kiribati seeking able-bodied workers. Promising to provide care for those who joined them, they specifically mentioned a need for fruit pickers. Eager to seize what seemed like an opportunity to support their family, Mandy signed up. However, upon their arrival in New Zealand, the employers failed to fulfill their promises. They did not provide the support and care they had pledged, leaving Martin and Mandy feeling betrayed and disheartened.

There were twelve of us, crammed into a two-bedroom house. Eight of us were relegated to the garage, while the remaining four squeezed into the main living quarters. It was a stark and uncomfortable introduction to our new lives in New Zealand. The employers simply pointed to the garage and instructed us to share the space – that was the extent of their care for us. It was a far cry from the promises made back in Kiribati, where we were assured of individual rooms upon arrival. Their deception didn't end there; we later discovered that another employer in the South Island had packed over 20 people into a single dwelling earlier that year. 

These employers knew exactly how to manipulate the situation. They would sweet-talk the Kiribati government, emphasizing their urgent need for workers and promising to cover all transportation costs. The government, believing it to be beneficial, would agree. However, once we began working, the reality became clear: the employers deducted money from our paychecks to supposedly reimburse the flight costs they had initially pledged to cover. It was a trap, and I felt trapped. I had nowhere else to turn; the house belonged to them, and my livelihood depended on my employment with them.

Martin interjected, pointing out that while having 10 or 20 people under one roof is indeed a part of Kiribati culture, it's typically acceptable because they're family. However, the situation they found themselves in, where they were all crammed into a single house by their employers, was far from acceptable. Despite the challenges, there wasn't much they could do about it. Fortunately, the situation has improved over time as more I-Kiribati families have settled in New Zealand, offering support to the workers. They organize social events and weekend trips to help alleviate the stress of their new environment.

Our culture, Martin emphasized, plays a significant role in making things better. In times of need, we come together to help each other. However, Martin raised a poignant question: imagine if there were no one here to turn to for support. Who would you confide in? While their journey was tough, they consider themselves fortunate. They were able to secure jobs that provided them with the income to purchase their own house. Learning the importance of financial independence early on was a valuable lesson that ultimately worked in their favor.

Martin and Materena were among the pioneering migrants to settle in Morningside. Over time, more individuals were recruited by New Zealand employers and found their way to the community. Taakura and three companions were among those recruited, arriving in New Zealand on September 8, 1999, after being hired by a couple intending to establish a childcare center.

When I arrived, I went directly to the family to start working on the childcare business. We didn't have all the details when we left Kiribati, and upon arrival, we had to spend the night at the airport because our flight was delayed. The family came to pick us up in the morning. That first night was nerve-wracking because we didn't know anyone or anything. Our biggest challenge was the language barrier since we didn't speak much English on the islands. It took time to adjust and become comfortable with it. Everything was new and unfamiliar to us, but being together eased some of the fear. It would have been much scarier if we had been alone. When we met with the childcare recruiters, we learned that we needed a childcare license. To cover our school fees and plane tickets, we agreed to work for free for almost a year.

Once the private work scheme ended, I decided to remain in New Zealand. Finding another job was challenging because I had never done it before. Eventually, I secured a job in Morningside and stayed with family while working at Boyd's asparagus pack house. After two years there, I moved to Te Puke to work in the Kiwi fields. These were seasonal jobs, so I alternated between them. Later, I found a more permanent position in a rest home, but I had to quit after having a baby. Unlike Kiribati, where you have lots of family support, life here is challenging because it revolves around money. You need a job to survive. In Kiribati, you can sustain yourself by living off the land and catching food. Money isn't a necessity; what matters most are family and ancestral land.

My host family's migration to New Zealand mirrors the narratives of previous work-sponsored migrations. Others who didn't arrive via employment sponsorship entered on visitor visas, pursued educational opportunities, or married New Zealand citizens. These pathways often entailed more complexity, as illustrated by Berena's story, a narrative that resonates with many migrants.

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