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.

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.


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