Patrick from Sudan invites me to ‘Come and see what we’ve been doing.’ Young refugees, from over 20 ethnic backgrounds, have explored their experiences of coming to, and settling in, New Zealand through, ‘writing, film, photography and all kinds of artwork.’
I accept Patrick’s invitation and enter the Mixing Room on the fourth floor of Te Papa. This is an experimental space where exhibitions are developed with different communities.
I walk through a history of refugee crises since 1870, marked in glass steps on the floor. Ethnic persecution of the Bhutanese, civil war in Cambodia, military dictatorship in Burma, ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians, genocide in Rwanda and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, to name just a few. Faces of young people, caught up in such crises, phase in and out of each other on the far wall. This digital mosaic is made up of hundreds of photographs provided by the 70 young refugees involved.
On either side of the narrow curved space are evocative first-person quotes that trace the young people’s journeys. ‘I was just 3 weeks old when my mother carried me, my brother and a bag of rice across Cambodia’s killing fields, ’ says Sam Put. I pick up his story when he is in a refugee camp. ‘We were there for 9 years, hoping, hoping, hoping to go. ’ For others the wait was even longer. Lalman Ral, ’ spent 17 years in the refugee camp in Bhutan, full of sorrows.’ But then, for some, life takes a different course. ‘One of the officers came to our very old shelter and gave us a letter,’ says Samson Sahele of Ethiopia.‘ “Congratulations to all. You have been accepted.” This was the way we came to New Zealand.’
Reunions with other family members evoke powerful responses. ‘Now that my grandmother’s here, it’s like a heavy thing off our shoulders,’ says Anita Azizi from Afghanistan. Sam Put, too, is reunited with his family. ‘ When I left the camp, I didn’t realize I was going so far away. I thought I could see my mum and dad whenever I wanted. It was a huge moment when my parents finally came to New Zealand’.
The back-lit photographs, that are not directly related to the text, change as the narrative progresses. Familiar, harrowing images of war, guns, overcrowded boats and refugee camps are replaced by more positive images of families reunited.
Even the quotes and images about the resettlement centre suggest a positive experience. ‘I was terrified when I saw the Refugee Centre in Mangere, thinking it was a jail,’ says Amie Se from Burma. ‘But after a warm welcome by the people from Refugee Services I felt safe and enjoyed the six weeks training there.’
For Teuta Fusha, a Kosovar Albanian, ‘ to be safe and not to have to think about what might happen tomorrow or what might happen tonight is wonderful.’
I sit down at one of three large, circular interactive tables that glow in the dark with members of the Tahiti national handball team, jubilant at having won a recent match in the capital. We take it in turns to activate the words, songs and art. developed in workshops across New Zealand. Again many of the stories are positive. A young man tells of how he was encouraged by his aunties to drive fast, even though he had not passed his test and without a qualified driver in the car. He is stopped by the New Zealand police but, to his astonishment, ‘They just give you only a fine.’
‘We are free to go around the world,’ says a young woman from Nepal. ‘In New Zealand I feel I can achieve anything I want,’ says a young woman of Vietnamese origin from Indonesia.
Then the manger of the winning Tahiti handball team, presses an icon and up pops the face of a young Congolese. We sit together, our feet tapping, and listen to his rap.
Different people from different countries,
Wearing ragged clothing
AND STILL I RISE
Desperate for food
AND STILL I RISE
Sound of desperation
Taste of determination
Explosion of landmine
Smell of death
AND STILL I RISE
When it is my turn I activate an image of an old telephone in a darkened room. A young woman from Rwanda is talking to God. ‘I don’t know where I belong,’ she says. ‘ YOU ARE A CHILD OF THE WORLD,’ God replies. She persists. ‘It gets too much sometimes – every single day I think about what I had.’ ‘WHAT DID YOU LEAVE BEHIND?’ asks God. ‘I did not finish playing Weweri’… ……’eating igisheke, ikiviguto. amapere.’ The ordinary, the everyday. Childlike, But then the tone and body language change. ’I don’t miss fearing for my life, ….walking over dead bodies and …. swimming in a lake full of corpses.’
The Tahitians leave and I am left alone with my table that glows in the dark. I press more icons. ‘Stranger in a place I call home. 13 years and still they stare.Where is my home? Where? Where?’
The next poem is by Abdalla Gabriel from Sudan. His words are magnificent.
‘Perhaps one day I shall go out into the quietened city and recognise myself among the crowds of souls.
I will say to them, ‘Hey look there goes the man I really am.
Will they dare to acknowledge me?
No one responds. There is silence …………..
Then the world moves on restlessly
making its love,
greed, pride and money, minding its business,
Shamelessly I close my eyes, then rest my mouth
Silence is the only language that does not need an interpreter. ‘
As I leave the exhibition I catch sight of a quote I had missed earlier. ‘As you drive away, you look back at those still trapped behind the barrier. You know, and you can see that they know, that they are taking their last breaths,’ says Martine Udahemuka from Rwanda.
I reread the opening text. ‘Every year 1000 people come to New Zealand as refugees or as family of refugees already here. Many are young people like us.’
I think of the millions trapped behind that barrier. This exhibition, involving 70 of the 1000 refugees that come to New Zealand every year, seems like a drop in the Tasman Sea.
But important all the same.