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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

New Lives and Fictive Relations

My journey began with a difficult decision to leave my job in Kiribati. Finding employment there was increasingly challenging, and hearing about job opportunities in New Zealand sparked thoughts of a better future for my children. Arriving in 2001, Martin and his family were among the few I-Kiribati settled here. While others came and went, they remained a constant presence. At that time, the PAC had just been initiated in Kiribati, but we were already in New Zealand and ineligible to register for permanent residency through that scheme. Since then, much has evolved in our lives here.

When we arrived in New Zealand, my son was attending primary school, and I had accumulated a decade of experience as an administrator in a secondary school back home. However, due to my visitor status, I faced challenges in finding employment. Determined to contribute and support other island students, I approached the principal of my son's school and secured a position as a teacher's aide for nearly a year. The principal's support and a reference she provided were invaluable during this time. To navigate the immigration process, I enlisted the help of a consultant, despite the hefty cost involved. Securing a job offer paved the way for obtaining a work permit, allowing me to bring over my other children and enroll them in school. For two years, I worked at the school under the protection of my work permit, which also facilitated my family's residence in New Zealand. However, upon ceasing employment, my permit became invalid, leading to uncertainties about our stay in the country.

We found ourselves in a challenging situation as overstayers, a term used for individuals who remain in a country beyond the expiration of their visas. Unfortunately, many New Zealanders perceive Pacific Islanders as overstayers, even when they are legally present. It's a harsh reality, but one we had to confront. Twice, I made the difficult decision to return to Kiribati temporarily to rectify my immigration status, only to come back to New Zealand and face the same uphill battle. Each time, the process was emotionally and financially draining. Eventually, faced with the prospect of a third return to Kiribati, I realized I couldn't afford to go through it again, and I reluctantly became an overstayer. During this challenging period, we were fortunate to have a small Kiribati community around us, whose support was invaluable for our survival.

I chose to move to Morningside because I felt discontent with our living situation elsewhere. The overcrowding and numerous problems made life difficult. In contrast, Morningside offered a sense of tranquility and a smaller, more manageable community. For the first year, we lived with fellow Kiribati migrants. However, everything changed when I obtained permanent residency. It was like stepping into a new life—a life where our circumstances were vastly improved, and everyday challenges became more manageable. Living as overstayers was a constant source of fear and limitation. We felt restricted in our movements, unable to drive or access assistance programs. Our lack of permanent residency made us feel isolated and vulnerable, like prisoners in our own home. The fear of encountering authorities or other Kiribati families kept us confined indoors, perpetuating our sense of isolation and insecurity.

Obtaining permanent residency was a moment of true liberation for us—a weight lifted off our shoulders, replaced by a newfound sense of joy and freedom. We transitioned from our modest four-year dwelling to a larger, more comfortable home, symbolizing the positive change in our lives. The happiness reflected in our children's faces was palpable; they felt secure with their newfound permanent resident status. Prior to this, securing employment was a struggle fraught with deception. We often found ourselves fabricating stories to potential employers about possessing work permits, driven by the urgent need to make ends meet. It was a challenging period where necessities like rent, food, and fuel for the car were a constant worry. Our children, relying on student permits, even took on the responsibility of driving us around. Despite these hardships, the support from our church community was a beacon of hope. They provided us with essential assistance, including food, furniture, and clothing, during our most difficult times, offering solace and relief when we needed it most.

A universal challenge faced by all migrants was the relentless struggle for financial stability. In their adopted countries, money became the cornerstone of survival, often replacing the traditional support networks of extended family and the security of land back in Kiribati. It was money that covered the costs of essentials such as food, childcare, housing, utilities, and transportation—essentially everything that was once provided by the communal lifestyle of the islands. In the absence of familial or social support, financial resources became the lifeline. Conversely, the lack of financial means introduced an entirely new level of hardship, exacerbating the already daunting journey of adaptation and integration into a foreign society.

I initially crossed paths with Steven and Elizabeth back in 2001 when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer. Their residence was adjacent to my host family's home. Fast forward to the summer of 2004, and I found myself collaborating with Steven at Kiribati's Ministry of Health on various HIV/AIDS public health initiatives targeted at the youth of our community. 

Reconnecting with them in 2010 revealed a significant transformation in their lives. Steven and Elizabeth had embarked on multiple migrations to New Zealand, driven by their pursuit of obtaining New Zealand citizenship. During our reunion, they generously shared their experiences and insights gained throughout their journey since departing Kiribati.

Elizabeth initiated our conversation by reminiscing about her initial experience in New Zealand. "I first arrived in New Zealand back in 1998," she shared, "to pursue my undergraduate degree in nursing. Initially, I was alone for the semester, but my family joined me the following year in 1999." Reflecting on those early days, she admitted, "Adjusting to life in New Zealand was incredibly challenging for us. I was juggling my studies while also being a mother to all of our children who were with me here." 

As a student on a scholarship from the Kiribati government, Elizabeth faced financial struggles. "The scholarship alone wasn't sufficient to meet our needs," she explained. "There were times when my husband would send us money from Kiribati just to help us make ends meet." Despite the hardships, they made the decision to keep the children with her for the sake of their education. "We believed that the educational opportunities here were superior, and we wanted our children to have the best possible education," she emphasized.

However, life presented significant challenges, particularly when our children started attending school. The expenses quickly piled up, from purchasing their uniforms to covering the costs of rent and school lunches. Every aspect of our daily lives required money, and we found ourselves struggling tremendously in those early days after our arrival.

We quickly adapted to budgeting and became adept at saving every penny. Sometimes, we resorted to rationing our food, carefully portioning out tins to last us through the week. Sharing meals became a common practice in our household, a necessity born out of financial constraints. Fortunately, our children were remarkably understanding of our situation; they knew when we couldn't afford petrol for the car and were content to take the bus, which was free for students like them. I, too, benefited from free transport as a student. Despite the challenges, all four children adjusted to the new language and environment, with some even participating in school activities like sports. While life was undeniably tough, there was a sense of resilience and solidarity within our family. Our isolation was palpable, with only three other Kiribati households in town. However, we were grateful for the generosity of others who provided us with essentials like beds, clothes, and even a car, easing our burden in those difficult times.

Sitting beside her, her husband interjects, emphasizing the invaluable support they received from non-relatives and the school community. "They provided us with furniture, plates, dishes—everything we needed, all free of charge! Their assistance was truly exceptional, and they didn't expect anything in return, which left a lasting impression on us," he reflects.

Elizabeth continues, recounting her academic journey: "After completing my degree in 2001, I returned to Kiribati, where we lived for the next five years. In 2006, we came back to New Zealand for further schooling at Auckland University. While pursuing my MA in nursing, I also applied for the PAC, which enabled our entire family to attain permanent residency in New Zealand, except for Steven. Unfortunately, he was traveling at the time, making it challenging to complete his application as we needed a copy of his passport, which he had with him."

Steven clarifies, "I also went to New Zealand in the same year, but my migration wasn't through the PAC program. Initially, I held a work permit and later transitioned to a family partnership allowance." He expresses their aspirations for New Zealand citizenship, detailing their eligibility timeline, "However, I won't be eligible yet. Elizabeth will meet the requirements in 2011, as petitioners must wait five years after obtaining permanent resident status. Since I gained permanent residency in 2009, I'll become eligible in 2014. The rest of the family can apply in 2011."

He elaborates, "While the New Zealand government did provide assistance, we were aware of the challenges when we arrived in 2006 through the PAC, having experienced migration previously. However, for those leaving Kiribati for the first time, the adjustment may be more difficult. It's understandable that newcomers may face tough times. Although there are support services available, like the migrant resource center, there's a stigma that deters many, including us, from seeking help."

"I believe the government's efforts to aid migrants are commendable, but there's room for improvement. Services should be tailored to diverse populations, not just large groups, and delivered in indigenous languages. Access to individuals who speak various languages, not just English, is crucial for effective support."

"This is where community groups play a crucial role in supporting new migrants. We all understand the challenges firsthand and can empathize with one another. When my family and I moved to Auckland as students, we encountered the higher cost of living. We had expenses like water, rent, and electricity to cover, and we didn't even have a car at that time. We observed that others in our community were facing similar struggles, especially in obtaining permanent residency."

"Many in the community sought legal assistance, but some ended up paying exorbitant fees to lawyers, draining their resources. It's difficult to imagine the financial burden they endured. Additionally, transportation posed a challenge for those without access to a vehicle. In response, we organized fundraisers to purchase a van, providing much-needed transportation for those in need."

"As more I-Kiribati migrants arrived, they naturally gravitated towards settling close to one another, driven by the need for social engagement, security, and employment opportunities. The employment requirements of the PAC scheme further incentivized the formation and growth of I-Kiribati migrant communities. Living in close-knit communities facilitated the development of informal safety networks."

"In Kiribati, there's a concept called 'bubutii,' where you can ask a neighbor for small favors like sugar or tea. However, the expectation of continuous assistance, such as a place to sleep or regular meals, is frowned upon. This contrasts with the support networks in New Zealand, where new migrants rely heavily on their community for assistance in adjusting to their new country and lifestyle. As the number of migrants increased, these communities expanded, providing even more support to newcomers."

Kiribati migrants faced numerous personal challenges while adapting to life in a new country. Many shared accounts of feeling marginalized and discriminated against due to their darker complexion and limited proficiency in English. “Upon arrival in New Zealand, communication barriers compounded our sense of isolation. Despite our efforts to communicate, our struggles with the language may have led others to treat us differently. We felt the sting of discrimination based on our identity as islanders, encountering instances of racism in various aspects of daily life."

"I personally experienced discrimination at work, where my unfamiliarity with certain tasks was met with mistreatment when seeking assistance. Over time, I learned to avoid interactions with certain individuals who consistently mistreated me. Similarly, I observed prejudice in the attitudes of some patients at the retirement center where I worked. It was disheartening to encounter resistance from those who harbored prejudices against individuals with a darker complexion, like myself, providing care."

These shared experiences of discrimination fostered a strong sense of solidarity among migrants in their new host countries. Despite the challenges they faced, these experiences served to strengthen the bonds within migrant communities, highlighting the vital role of communal support networks. Through mutual understanding and empathy, migrants found solace and resilience in their collective struggle, reinforcing the significance of community in navigating the complexities of life abroad.

Steven and Elizabeth took the initiative to establish the community, driven by their own experiences of receiving help and support when they first arrived. "Having experienced firsthand the challenges of migration and the invaluable assistance of others, we felt compelled to pay it forward," Steven explained. "We understood the importance of offering support during the crucial period of arrival and adjustment for new migrants." Their compassion and empathy led them to open their doors to my host uncle and brother-in-law when they arrived in New Zealand, providing them with a supportive environment for nearly a year until their own families began to migrate.

Aunty Jane arrived in 2009, driven by the desire to secure a better future for her children. "I considered retiring from the Ministry for the benefits, but ultimately, I prioritized my kids' education," she explained. "Even though it was just three months, I knew they would need time to adjust to the new life and language. Looking back, I regret not coming in 2008, as my children would have benefited from a full year of better education." Reflecting on their early days in New Zealand, she acknowledged the steep learning curve they faced as newcomers. "We were very new and inexperienced. We had different expectations, and we simply didn't know. We thought the teachers would make accommodations, but it wasn't that simple. We had to hold our child back a year, which was disappointing." Jane recognized that this learning curve is common for all newcomers, as they are thrust into a fast-paced environment where they must adapt quickly.

"People need to be proficient in English to navigate life here, so perhaps an English course prior to arrival would benefit many," suggested Jane. "Such a course could cover essential topics like job hunting, securing housing, and opening a bank account—things that are second nature to New Zealanders but foreign to many newcomers. Additionally, understanding how to enroll children in schools or daycares is crucial. When we arrived, we didn't realize there were free public schools available, so we initially enrolled our children in Catholic schools." She emphasized the importance of knowledge about employment and finances, including understanding the distinctions between part-time and full-time work and how they impact one's life. "Once you secure a job, knowing how to budget, save money, and find affordable grocery stores becomes essential. We had to adapt everything to fit the 'palagi' way of life here."

"We also learned that you don't need everything all at once when you arrive. It's better to gradually accumulate necessities like furniture, plates, and clothes," Jane reflected. "If you try to get everything immediately, you'll end up with no money left to cover living expenses. We learned that the hard way. I believe the first priority should be acquiring a car for transportation. However, driving here is quite different—it's much stricter. There are numerous laws to follow, and sometimes, complying with them becomes a challenge, especially when the police take advantage of us." She nodded knowingly, recalling her experiences living with her host sister and the Morningside community for a year.

As the phone rang, we had just returned from the grocery store one night. While I unloaded the van, I overheard Jane engaged in what sounded like a serious conversation. "I know, we aren't from here, so we don't know how it works, but now we know," she was saying. Curious, I inquired about the conversation's topic. "Racism in New Zealand," she responded. "I've heard about it, and I've even felt uneasy around Palagi people at times. It's strange; when I speak, people seem to view me differently. I sound American, but I look like an Islander. This situation seems to be another one of those cases."

She went on to explain that Joe had received a ticket for a car he wasn't driving. The police cited him for not wearing a seatbelt while seated in the passenger's seat, despite his assurance that he had it on. What puzzled them even more was that the ticket accused a child who wasn't even present in the car of not being properly secured in a child's seat. While the seatbelt issue appeared to be central to the ticket, the confusion stemmed from the discrepancy regarding who was in the car and not wearing the seatbelt. Joe recounted that the officer had been particularly demanding and forceful in demeanor during the stop, insisting on seeing his license despite him being a passenger and not the driver.

It wasn't uncommon to hear such stories in the community, but this case was particularly troubling as it involved local law enforcement. While Joe could have easily proven that the ticket was unjustified, given that there was no child in the car at the time of the citation, he felt too timid to appear in court. "I don’t speak English well," he reasoned.

His absence resulted in an additional $30.00 added to the original $150.00 ticket. Reluctantly, they agreed to pay the $180.00 fine along with a $20.00 late fee. Another frustrating encounter with the New Zealand Police.

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