Ibrahim Omer, union organiser at E Tū and Chair of Change Makers Resettlement Forum,
reflects on his journey in New Zealand as a refugee, and our response to
islamophobia, hate, and racism following the 15 March 2019 terror attacks
As a teenager, I was forced to flee my home in Eritrea. I did so to escape
the repressive Eritrean regime, and the prospect, even as a teenager, of
spending the rest of my life as a soldier in a country where military
service is compulsory, and often endless.
In my home country there was a shoot-to-kill policy on the border imposed
by the Eritrean regime. I had very limited options. I would either be shot
or get arrested and spend years in underground enclosures or metal shipping
containers. Or, I would make it safely to Sudan.
I chose to leave.
The first step was crossing into Sudan. I was incredibly lucky to make it
to Sudan, but my safety was never guaranteed, and I faced the very real
prospect of being deported back to Eritrea until the UNHCR intervened and
my case was referred on to third countries for resettlement. Thankfully, in
2008 I was accepted into New Zealand as a refugee, and my life changed
My knowledge of New Zealand was limited in those early days. My concerns
were overwhelming as I prepared to leave my country for a new home, one
that until recently I hadn’t even heard of. These concerns were quickly put
to ease as I learnt New Zealand – the country I would now call home – was
one of the most peaceful countries on earth.
I moved to New Zealand and faced many new struggles. In those early days,
low wages were a reality that filled me with new anxieties as I shaped a
new life for myself and attended university. It was at university that I
found my voice as an activist, and as a proud unionist. It was also around
this time that I started to notice the subtle forms of racism and
islamophobia many New Zealanders seemed all-too-willing to ignore.
The 15 March 2019 terrorist attacks on two Christchurch mosques, the Masjid
al Noor and Linwood Masjid, have made it so that racism and islamophobia
can no longer be ignored by any of us, not least those who are otherwise
open, welcoming and accepting, but who all too often look the other way
from the daily forms of bigotry many New Zealanders face.
The 15 of March shocked me to the core. The peaceful image we had of
ourselves, and that the international community had of us was shattered. As
the days went by, we learned more about the victims, which only confirmed
the senselessness of the attacks.
There was Haji Daoud Nabi, the 71-year-old man, who greeted the terrorist –
the man who would take his life – with the simple words “welcome, brother”.
There was Mohamad Moosid, a proud E Tū member. There was no collective
agreement at Mohamad Moosid’s workplace. It was not unionised, but he
joined nonetheless because he believed in the importance of the union
movement, in solidarity, and the role it plays in transforming lives.
And there was Muccad Ibrahim, the 3-year-old, born in New Zealand to a
Somali family who had fled fighting in their home country more than 20
years ago, only to find it in their adopted home.
The Christchurch terrorist attack proved one thing. Like our Prime Minister
said, we might not be immune to this sort of thing, but we can be the
country that meaningfully faces the challenge of hate and bigotry. We have
already proved that we can.
The response to the attack was one of a kind. Often countries who are
victims of terror attacks look for security solutions, but we proved that
love, empathy and kindness can go a long way. It can heal wounds, it brings
people together, and more importantly it sends a strong message to the
terrorists, those filled with hate and whose main aim is to divide us, that
they never will.
There is no question that the 15 March 2019 terror attacks changed the way
we think of ourselves as a nation. It was our darkest day, and one we will
never forget. But I like to think that it has changed us in some good ways
as well. Perhaps now we are not afraid to have those much needed, tough
discussions. Perhaps now we will not turn the other way when we see
Change Makers Resettlement Forum is working with the Living Wage Movement
Aotearoa on a photo exhibition “My Life…To Live: The Lives of Refugee
Background Workers” being launched June 20. This exhibition featuring the
work of Ehsan Hazaveh opens at the Portrait Gallery in Wellington, but will