The incredible story of how NZ’s Maori welcomed their Muslim refugees

You may have heard of the haka but when New Zealand wants to welcome someone they hold a powhiri.

It’s a Maori ceremony that is afforded to visiting royalty, dignitaries and sporting teams. It is a beautiful ceremony full of tradition and warmth.

There will be no powhiri for Peter Thiel.

The Donald Trump-loving mega billionaire has been revealed as a newly minted New Zealand citizen, but even the NZ$1 million he donated to the Christchurch earthquake recovery efffort won’t win him any friends down under.

New Zealand celebrates that it was the first in the world to give women the vote.

When same sex marriage was passed MPs sang a Maori waiata, or traditional song, in our national parliament.

The French blew up a Greenpeace boat in Auckland in 1985, killing one crew member, such was the power of this country’s anti-nuclear stance against their tests in the south Pacific.

So, no, Mr Thiel’s wealth will not sway New Zealanders, be they pakeha (white New Zealanders), Maori or the migrants that live here.

Instead powhiri will continue to be to be offered to those who possess what the Maori call “mana” – defined in English as honour, a recognition of your humbleness, good deeds and traits.

I remember one powhiri well. It was in 2013 to welcome a group of refugees from Afghanistan. With front pages of newspapers telling the new arrivals “Welcome Home” 94 refugees, their wives and children, began their new lives in Aotearoa.

They had been invited, yes invited, by the New Zealand government to move down under after they risked their lives working as interpreters for the New Zeland defence forces.

After eight weeks at a refugee centre where they learned all about life in their new country (with a few trips to the seaside thrown in) the families headed to their new homes, and lives.

Some arrived in my hometown of Hamilton, New Zealand, or Kirikiriroa as it is known in Maori.

Large parts of the community had waited, excited and nervous, for their arrival. Signs in offices across the city asked workers to donate old furniture and household goods to set up their new homes, the local Red Cross agency was overwhelmed with offerings.

Volunteers scrubbed houses clean, hung curtains, offered to show them how to use the local buses, the supermarket, the banks.


And the Afghans got their powhiri.

As their bus drew into Hamilton, their first stop was the Kirikiriroa Marae. A marae is a Maori communal and sacred meeting ground, a place of celebration and to welcome the living (as well as to farewell the dead).

It is a great honour to be invited onto a marae, and the Afghans, no doubt excited but nervous, were given a powhiri befitting their mana.

Maori warriors performed haka and laid down the traditional challenge to the new arrivals.

Raza Khadim, an intepreter who served alongside the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan for 10 years, calmly leaned down to pick up the teka (peace offering) before leading his fellow countrymen and women onto the marae.

“I was a bit scared because it was my first time,” he told the Waikato Times.

“This much respect, this much honour, this much welcome we have never seen. It’s been great.”

The ceremony was followed by lunch, a mix of eastern and Kiwi cuisine – curry and rice, kumara (what Americans would call sweet potato) and homemade cakes and other sweet treats for the children.

Cakes would be a big feature of their welcome to New Zealand. In every town they settled in, locals would hold “welcome to the neighbourhood” street parties, homemade cakes and slices offered up by Kiwi grandmothers who had lived through their own war may decades earlier.

After the Afghans left the marae and saw their new homes for the first time, life soon returned to the new normal.

The Afghan children started local schools, the men found jobs – some are training to be police officers – and many of the women have started making and selling handcrafted embroidered items at local markets. This past Christmas I bought from one Afghan refugee a tradtional Christian Christmas decoration and a hand stiched doll wearing a beautiful pink hijab.

img_4578
My son, Tommy, and Afghan refugee Aziza, who makes and sells Christmas decorations.

Since then Afghans we’ve welcome more refugees from other parts of the world, some from Syria, some from Eritrea, Somalia. Women wearing hijabs are becoming a common, and accepted, sight. Halal butcher shops are opening and really, really good kebabs are being sold as street food. The sky hasn’t fallen in, the All Blacks are still winning, I’ve added a second hijab dolly to my collection.

Will we ever see Mr Thiel at a local Kiwi market? Probably not. The traders and shoppers there are the people his good friend President Trump have just banned from America.

Mr Thiel will find that getting into New Zealand is the easy part. Belonging is another matter.

What life is really like with three boys under three.

My name is Angela, I have three boys under three and I haven’t slept in three-and-half years.

There’s Charlie, he came first and when he was 20 months old we welcomed identical twins Tommy and Henry into the world.

People always seem curious about how we cope, or don’t cope, and I can confirm that yes, we do have our hands full.

Sleep, or lack of it, is the real killer. Charlie is almost three and has only just started to sort-of sleep through the night, but if he does wake and call out for me he usually wakes a twin up, or vice-versa.

Despite being identical twins, Tommy and Henry have very different ideas about sleep. Henry appears to love it but his brother Tommy will wake two or three times each night and bangs his head on the cot mattress to “self-soothe” himself back to sleep.

My husband and I often swap daydreams about what illness or injury we would like to get, something that makes us sick enough to have to spend a few days in hospital on bed rest without feeling guilty about leaving the other at home to deal with the boys. He actually once wound up in hospital because he thought he was having a heart attack.

The boys start to wake from about 4am each day and their eventual bedtime can be anywhere from 6pm to 10pm. Forget all that “expert advice” about getting twins on the same routine, I am flat out remembering who is who and have they actually been fed. (And yes, I still get them mixed up. Tommy mercifully has a birthmark on the back of his neck for quick identification).

cryingtwins
A BOND THAT CAN’T BE BROKEN: That’s Tommy, I think, on the left.

Meals (because there is no set “mealtime”, ever) are literally a moving feast. I get so sick of plopping the twins in their high chairs and pulling them out again that I end up crawling after them on the floor, shoving bits of pre-cooked Hellers sausage into their mouth. Charlie is easier to deal with as he only eats cheese sandwiches, of which I make about 17 a day. He eats about two of them, but hey, the birds are well fed.

All three are still in nappies, so when I am not feeding them I am changing them. Our bins get so full that my husband has to wait until bin night and, under the cover of darkness, will place black bin bags in neighbours’ driveways because we always exceed the two-bag limit.

Going out by myself with all three is almost impossible. I tried once, to a local shopping centre, and it ended with the toddler throwing the mother of all tantrums and refusing to walk back to the car so a stranger had to carry him for me.

Parks and playgrounds are OK, but the twins will always crawl off in different directions while Charlie wants me to help him down the slide, and by the time we get there anyway at least one baby wants feeding or needs to go home for a nap and that’s too unfair on their big brother.

I can never do things like pop them in the car to pick up a few things from the supermarket. A grocery shop is something I have to do late at night when they are all in bed, but it’s sadly fun for me because it gets me out of the house. I take them to Playcentre twice a week, which has saved me, and them, from virtual house arrest.

Everyone said it would get easier when the twins turned one, but to be honest it’s getting harder. They want to walk but can’t, and cry in frustration. They bite me when they are teething, and if you turn your back on them for a second they are opening drawers and tipping over toy boxes and eating old food off the floor.

But we muddle through each day, and each day does eventually end and they all do eventually go to sleep.

Some days are harder than others, like when they are sick or I am dog tired and all they want to do it play. I’ve sat on the twins’ bedroom floor at 3am and sobbed and locked myself in the en suite at lunchtime to take a few deep breaths and drink a cold cup of tea.

Do I have moments where I wish I was things were different? Sure, and I bet everybody does. The twins weren’t planned, and boy they were a surprise. I never realised identical twins don’t run in families, they are a kind of freak of nature, and they can strike anyone at any time. We had decided we only wanted two children, and I still feel wistful at times about the “singleton” baby I never had.

But then, just when you think it can’t possibly get any harder I find the twins sitting outside in the sun happily picking daisies from the lawn and Charlie will look over and say “mama, I love Tommy and Henry, they are my little brothers”.

And I guess that’s it, the secret of why all us parents do what we do. It’s all for them. And it’s a job I wouldn’t swap for all the sleep in the world.

Declutter my life? No thanks, my things make me happy.

We recently moved back to New Zealand from Northern Ireland and even though we were only away 18 months we somehow managed to acquire lots of things – not to mention the identical twin boys that gave our firstborn son two instant little brothers.

We were fortunate and had a furnished house waiting for us when returned home, and our shipping container stuffed with boxes and furniture arrived back home months after we did. Most of it went straight into the garage where it still sits, unpacked and gathering dust and the odd cat who sleeps in there to avoid the twins.

It was only at Christmas time that I ventured into the cats’ cardboard box kingdom to dig out our tangled strings of fairy lights when I looked around and had a ‘Do we really need all this stuff’ moment.

We had everything we needed already, I thought, so why bother holding onto all these things. Emboldened by a daytime television interview I had seen with someone who billed themselves as a “decluttering expert” (they said it makes you happier and calmer) I rolled up my sleeves and dug in.

In the first box there were old dinner plates, ones I had almost forgotten about. They were chipped and cracked, old Crown Lyn ones, brought from the Grey St Market in our last week in Hamilton for me to take to Northern Ireland as a small and comforting reminder of home.

There was a giant glass decorative bowl that was sitting on the mantlepiece of our overseas home when we got there. Given to us by friend’s of my husband’s parents, we never knew quite what it was or what to do with it but could never seem to part with it nonetheless.

There was a broach handmade by an old neighbour, a pottery artist who fired her clay with soil from Hamilton, so that on my wedding day in Ireland I would always have a piece of home with me.

weddingbrooch

There were my before-three-babies clothes, impossibly skinny jeans and party dresses and heels, kept as I had always fancied giving them to a daughter, now nothing but a faded memory of a life before kids.

But then I realised that was exactly the point of all my stuff. They were memories, ready to be recollected in technicolour detail every time I held up an old dress, the smell of nightclub smoke and perfume still in a sleeve, or when I served dinner to my sons on a plate bought when I thought I would never return to my home.

I thought about the things I wished I had kept – my Winnie the Pooh stuffed toy that won me “Best Smiling Bear” at a teddy bear’s picnic when I was five, a ceramic owl jar stuffed fulled of handwritten notes I used to leave for the fairies in the garden, my late father’s typewriter he used to write his rugby columns for South African newspapers.

So I will keep all my things, and no doubt the pile will grow over the years as my sons stop playing with toys or reading picture books that I will never be able to bring myself to give away.

I will be a cluttered, hoarding, mess with 27 pairs of jeans that don’t fit and casserole dishes I will never cook with but I will have my memories and I will be the richest person in New Zealand.

Why Chinese families make the best type of Kiwis.

img_4455

Recently my own prejudices, buried so deep I had no idea they were even there, reared their head.

It was a ‘meet the newly enrolled families’ evening at the local Playcentre and there was a Chinese-born mum and dad with their baby boy, and the boy’s grandmother, who would be taking him to the sessions.

The grandmother couldn’t speak much English, and, ashamed as I am to admit it, I began to wonder what, if any, contribution she could make to our little group of young, mostly white and English speaking mums.

Come the first day of term there she was, proudly beaming with her grandson, 10-months old and a gorgeous blob of blue-black hair and dimples to die for.

She introduced herself as Nai Nai, the Mandarin word for grandmother, and plopped little Ray (“I call him Ray Ray”) on the floor with my twin boys, who were roughly the same age.

Over the days and weeks I watched Nai Nai struggle with Ray Ray as he went through all the usual baby things that drive us all mental – teething, fussiness, tiredness from skipping naps and refusal to try new foods.

But twice a week, every week, she fronted our little group, always with a smile, and the effort she made to learn my boys’ names – and to tell apart the identical twins – was second only to the effort she made to be the world’s best grandparent.

And she did it all on her own, her son and daughter-in-law, whom she lives with, both work full-time as they build a new life for themselves and their child in New Zealand.

In broken, stunted English she would offer to make me a cup of tea or scoop up a twin when they cried. One hellish day when my toddler threw the mother all tantrums and I burst into a flood of frustrated tears she was there to give me the warmest and most comforting hug I’ve felt in a long, long time.

That was the first time I cried in front of Nai Nai. The second was even more personal, for both of us.


It was when she brought her grandson over to me, sat him at my feet and shyly handed me a picture book.

Read to him, please”, she asked. “I want him to learn English. He can’t from me.”

And there it was, the secret of all overseas-born grandparents the world over who give up everything, their own brothers and sisters back home, their independence, their everything to look after grandchildren.

They do it so their sons and daughters can work or study full time (and keep the economy running) and avoid insanely expensive childcare options.

They do it because they love their grandchildren so much they are willing to live in a country where they can’t understand a lot of what is being said or written around them, but march on nonetheless.

And, in the case of Nai Nai, they do it knowing that even if they can’t teach their grandchild English they will do whatever they can to make sure someone else can.

So next time some bigot masquerading as a politician goes off on a rant about how they don’t hear English spoken in playgrounds any more, or if you catch yourself, as I did, wondering what Value they can add to country where they don’t read or speak the local language, or work, think of Nai Nai and Ray Ray.

Because I guarantee you wee Ray Ray will grow up to be a bright and beautiful Kiwi and the type of person New Zealand will be proud to claim as its own.

Xiè xie Nai Nai.