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March 28, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Student Refugees Find Refuge

With increasing global consciousness evidenced by recent crises such as the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and, closer to home, the Christchurch earthquake, we’ve seen global communities reach out and connect with the struggles and plights of individuals.

As a nation, as a student population and as individuals, we are becoming more familiar with the idea of thousands of global citizens losing their homes to natural disasters and being faced with the task of finding a new home and resettling on the world stage.

This is all too familiar a scenario for a small community of students at Victoria University. Students with refugee backgrounds are a population that seemingly go unnoticed; it is not a fact that most students wear as a badge.

A refugee is defined as a person who has been forced to leave his or her home and seek refuge elsewhere. Of course, this is only a transitional status, and under the government’s annual Refugee Quota Programme, New Zealand currently accepts up to 750 refugees per year. This number includes young adults who go on to enroll in university papers.
Daniel Za is a second-year Political Science student. Daniel and his family arrived in New Zealand in 2006, after travelling from Burma to Malaysia on foot. “My father left Burma before us, so we could have a place at the Refugee Camp in Malaysia. He is like a hero to me.”

Daniel describes his journey with his family to reach his father as like “walking through hell”. Crossing the Malay-Burma border and Malay-Thai border takes two weeks on foot and is marked by dangers unimaginable to most.

Four years on, Daniel is an involved student at Victoria University, participating in such programmes as the International Students
Conversation Class as a group leader, Victoria

Plus and Victoria International Leaders Programme (VILP). Through VILP, Daniel volunteers at the Wellington Refugee Homework Centre, which is a drop-in style tutoring centre for secondary students with refugee backgrounds. He is a class representative for his Philosophy paper and is a note taker for Victoria University Disability Services.
On how his education would be different if he had not left Burma, Daniel says, “I would not be at university. I would not have the chance to learn politics so freely because of the political situation there.”

Burma is currently controlled by the military. Daniel is hopeful for the future of his former country, but expresses sadness for those he knows are still there.
“I never feel sad for me, but I am unhappy for those who are still living in that environment, where the government is so controlling and it is unsafe sometimes.”
A great awareness of others seems to be inherent in Daniel. He shows this sensitivity towards both his fellow countrymen in Burma and the students at VUW who need assistance via Disability Services or Conversation class.

Although refugee resettlement stories are unique to the circumstances, and no two stories are identical, students with a refugee background have a commonality so entrenched in their personal histories that make this small community one of the most interesting to investigate.

The resettlement process doesn’t just mean finding a new home; it is also about finding a place in your new surroundings—a mental settledness in one’s environment. Daniel has found his place, and feels like a he is a part of the Victoria student community. Through his volunteering at the homework centre, conversation class and disability services, he displays an amazing approach to creating his standing here at Victoria.

Daniel still holds his personal background and culture as a huge part of his identity. When asked how important it is for him to feel like he belongs at university, he replies, “When I was walking between the two borders, we belonged to no government. And we did not have anything in any country.”

The idea of having a space to stand in is the basis behind the Drop-In Centre for Students with Refugee Backgrounds. It runs in MY 1010 every Thursday and Friday from 4pm to 6pm from now until the end of Study Week. The centre facilitates a drop-in environment where students meet, study, have a

snack, and get support with their study at Victoria University. They are still looking for volunteers, with a particular need for volunteers who are studying Bio-Medical Science.
Currently, VUW has no formal services designed for students with refugee backgrounds. Student Recruitment and Enrolment and Orientation Services host a ‘welcome’ at the beginning of the year, but there is no way of knowing how many VUW students are in need of such support.

Senior Lecturer in Anthropology Dr Diane O’Rourke believes more holistic services are needed here at Victoria University. She suggests that one way of addressing this issue would be to recognise students with refugee backgrounds as an equity group. What creating a new equity group would mean is that Victoria University would have the statistics to better understand the needs of this small group. This motion is supported by Changemakers Refugee Forum, as well as the NZ National Refugee Network.

Dr O’Rourke believes the strengths this community brings to VUW should be celebrated and protected.

“They bring a diversity of experiences of the world that most of us on these little islands can barely imagine. It adds depth to the book-learning our students do about conflict, globalisation, development, humanitarian aid (and the problems with those).”

This small but significant community is united by the commonality of dislocation and trauma, but contributes to the wider student body at Victoria University by teaching us of the incredible resilience and resourcefulness of human beings.


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  1. what i have not done is not hopeful for ……. but i always have to try wherever i live or stay .I want to be like you but I need to wait for ………………..May God bless you all who read ….

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