"Courageous Conversations”

"Courageous Conversations”

June 3, 2015

Nga mihinui nga mihi mahana kia koutou katoa.

Acknowledgments and warm greetings to you all. I would especially like to welcome UNHCR representative Thomas Albrecht back to our part of the world.

Most of all thank you to the members of New Zealand’s refugee community who are here with us today. 

Tena koutou. Tena koutou. Tena koutou katoa. Thank you for inviting me to talk to you today.

Our theme for today is 'Establishing A Sense of Belonging'.

This in itself poses the questions:

  1. Are Refugee New Zealanders responsible for Establishing A Sense of Belonging?
  2. Is Government responsible for Establishing A Sense of Belonging?
  3. Are Everyday New Zealanders responsible for Establishing A Sense of Belonging?

The answer of course is a simple one:

All of us are responsible for Establishing A Sense of Belonging amongst Refugee New Zealanders.

We are all ultimately responsible for the kind of country we live in, for the kind of country our children and grandchildren will grow up in.

Whether we are a passenger taking the Valley Flyer bus to Naenae, whether we are teaching children who come from refugee backgrounds, whether we are the Prime Minister deciding whether or not to meet with Muslim Kiwis:  

We are all responsible and we all have a role to play in not just Establishing A Sense of Belonging – but in Guaranteeing a Culture of Belonging.

When I was invited to speak with you a year ago the upgrade of the Mangere resettlement centre had recently been announced, as well as a further $5.6 million over four years to support new refugees during their first year.  I’d like to acknowledge Government’s critical support  for the resettlement of refugee New Zealanders and encourage Government to keep going, to keep it up.

Today the voices from our Refugee Communities will be heard alongside the voices of our policy makers and support workers. Their focus will be on their work Establishing A Sense of Belonging.

What I would like to talk to you about today are Courageous Conversations as they are crucial if we are going to guarantee a culture of belonging now and for future generations of New Zealanders.

We all need to have Courageous Conversations or Courageous Korero  if we are going to leave this country a better place than we found it.

How New Zealanders treat refugees – whether it’s with respect or not – is up to us.

And by us I mean all of us and that includes politicians because they aren’t not just everyday New Zealanders and neither are they comedians.

Politicians are statesmen and women who have the honour of representing us in our parliament.

Last year I called out a politician who I’ve identified as a repeat offender when it comes to denigrating entire ethnic groups.  

As Race Relations Commissioner my role is to “promote and protect human rights for all people in Aotearoa New Zealand and foster harmonious relations”.

In other words, I’m responsible for encouraging everyone to treat each other with respect, dignity and mana: irrespective of their race, ethnicity or religion.

We’ve come a long way as a nation in terms of treating each other with respect but what’s clear is some of us – including a few politicians - still have a long way to go. 

One third generation Chinese Kiwi said to me: 

Why should my children have to put up with people making fun of their name? Making fun of their entire family? 

I really thought they wouldn’t have to go through what I did. But I was wrong. 

Calling out that politician’s racial slur didn’t just make the news here in New Zealand. Within hours the story was on the homepages of news outlets from Dubai to Taiwan, Jakarta to Beijing.

What many Kiwis don’t realise is that the whole world’s watching and listening when it comes to race relations. Soon after Al Jazeera contacted my office and asked to interview me about race relations in Aotearoa.

New Zealand’s excellent human rights reputation is ours to hold but it’s also ours to lose. 

Closer to home, if New Zealand kids see one of our most popular politicians making fun of them on TV – and everyone laughs but no one calls him out: then we have failed.

The face of New Zealand is younger and more ethnically diverse than ever before. 

One-in-10 Kiwis are Asian Kiwis. One-in-four Aucklanders are Asian Aucklanders. Maori and Pacific Kiwis are a young, fast growing population.

Last year’s census for the first time recorded that more than one million people living in New Zealand were born overseas, 300,000 more than in the 2001 census.

The bottom line is about all of us building a future where all our children know they are not just tolerated, they are valued and they are celebrated. Each and every one of them.

I am in no doubt that we are at a crossroads when it comes to race relations, ethnic diversity and identity in our country.

Since I last spoke with you Muslim Kiwis and Jewish Kiwis have increasingly told us they are feeling under pressure because of ongoing conflicts taking place thousands of miles away from us here in New Zealand.

A young Jewish boy in Mount Eden on his way home from kindy is abused by strangers because he is Jewish they rip his Yamulke off his head. A few suburbs away a young mum picking her kids up from school in Avondale is abused by strangers because she is Muslim.

Leaders from both communities have publicly and unreservedly rejected violent extremism, and are vocal advocates for peace, justice and human rights. If New Zealanders want peace overseas then we need to start right here at home, because human rights begin at home, with everyday people.

The streets of our towns and suburbs are where race relations will thrive or die: it’s really up to us. While we mourn the tragic loss of lives overseas, I believe we must honour their lives by standing up for peace and human rights at all costs. 

There is no panacea when it comes to race relations. Every country has its own issues to address, its own past to reconcile, it’s own future to guarantee. We all need to play a role in the conversation over where New Zealand is heading. 

Now is the time to talk about and plan for the kind of country we want our children and grandchildren growing up in. 

When we bring the violence and hatred we see on our television screens into our suburbs, when we scream hate at a woman in a veil and her children, or a boy in a yarmulke: we are the ones creating the terror.

We're pretty good at learning from and resolving past mistakes in New Zealand – planning for our future is something we need to get better at.

We can't just rely on our Kiwi saying "She'll Be Right" and hope for the best. If we don't plan for our future and our children's future now – chances are, she won’t be "Right".

Our message to Kiwis is to stand up for Muslim and Jewish Kiwis or anyone they see being victimised. Don't be a bystander, be brave and make sure the victims know they are not alone and the perpetrators know they will not be tolerated.

Because hate starts small. Hate is born when a small child and his mother are abused as they walk home. Hate grows when their neighbours and friends stand by and do nothing.

Hate triumphs when intolerance and prejudice becomes ingrained across an entire society, from the pages of newspapers to the halls of Government, from schoolrooms to boardrooms. 

If there is any lesson everyday New Zealanders can learn from History - it’s don’t be a bystander. 

Don’t stand by and do nothing when you see people spreading hate and prejudice in your community, or your neighbourhood. I can't help but wonder whether anyone supported that small boy and his mum.

Did someone let them know they weren't alone? Did someone challenge the cowards who abused them? Those who spread hate and prejudice in our communities need to know their hatred is not welcome: and it’s everyday New Zealanders who need to give them that message. 

Everyday New Zealanders need to challenge prejudice and hate wherever, whenever we see it. We have an excellent international human rights record but it is not worth the paper it is written on if New Zealanders are under attack because they’re Jewish, Muslim, Chinese or Maori.

Human rights aren't just found in a declaration at the United Nations. Our human rights must be found here where we live and work, on the streets of Mt Eden, outside a synagogue in Central Wellington, or a mosque in Kilbirnie: Human Rights begin at home. 

One New Zealander who decided to take responsibility for the kind of country she lives in was Naenae woman, Pene Walker.

Last month she was on the Hutt Valley Flyer bus when Tupaea Moses started abusing some passengers because they were Muslim.  Fellow passenger Pene Walker decided she wasn’t going to be a bystander.  

The Hutt Valley grandmother decided to stand up for strangers, she told Mr Moses on no uncertain terms that she was not going to tolerate him racial abusing other passengers.

I am pretty proud of Pene, an Everyday New Zealander, standing up for a stranger and choosing not to be a bystander.

She showed all of us what we need to have the courage to do if it happens to us.

She showed us the kind of Courageous Conversations Everyday New Zealanders need to have if we want to decide what kind of country our kids will grow up in.

Real life incidents with real people standing up for the human rights of other people – these are worth more than a hundred Public Relations campaigns.

Don’t be a Bystander. Do Something. Let the person being abused know they are not alone. 

Let the abuser know their behaviour is Not OK.

Courageous Conversations can take many forms.

New Zealand's International Documentary Film Festival – the Documentary Edge Film Festival – opened last week in Auckland and moves tonight to Wellington’s The Roxy Theatre in Miramar.

Powerful films and unforgettable documentaries can highlight human rights in ways speeches and documents never will.

Understanding human rights starts with understanding the struggles other people face, being able to see the world through their eyes even if just for a few hours.

This year’s winning film at the Cannes Film Festival “Dheepan” gives a face to the millions of men, women and children right now who are homeless, stateless and often faceless.  

Dheepan traces the footsteps of Tamil Sri Lankan refugees who build a home and a future in France.

I’d like to touch briefly on the incredible inspiration I take from meeting New Zealanders from refugee backgrounds.

Many Kiwis who follow Masterchef will know the faces of Dai and Dal – two incredible chefs.

Most Kiwis will not know that both Dai and Dal were children when they arrived here as refugees from Lao.

I had a coffee with Dai the other day and as we sipped lattes this TV personality talked about how her family had escaped across the Mekong River to a Refugee Camp in Vietnam when she was a baby.  

There they survived and waited until our government accepted them as refugees. Dai grew up in Porirua and can speak some Samoan and was the lead kaea in Corinna School’s kapa haka group. Fast forward 30 years or so and she’s a stunning TV Chef about to launch her own range of cooking sauces.

Young Kiwi Mohamud Mohamud – about to graduate with his Masters degree - opened our Race Relations Day event this year in Auckland and shared his family’s story of arriving here as refugees from Somalia. He and Dai both told me that refugees rely on their resilience and they rely on each other.  

Both Mohamud and Dai continue to give back and volunteer time with their communities.

These young New Zealanders epitomise the fighting Kiwi spirit and they make me incredibly proud to be a New Zealander. 

On Race Relations Day for New Zealand I repeated a call I first made here last year: to increase our refugee quota – that has remained unchanged since 1987.

That is a very long time.

New Zealand hasn’t raised our refugee quota since David Lange was Prime Minister, Winston Peters was National’s Race Relations spokesperson and I was the World Squash champion: times have changed a lot since 1987, it’s time to raise the quota.

The fact that even Mr Peters believes our refugee quota should be raised surely is a good indication that perhaps change is in the wind?

How can we play our part on the world stage with mana or with dignity if we don’t do the right thing at home?

We are simply not pulling our weight when it comes to taking in refugees.

Raising the refugee quota is humanity in action.

We have millions of displaced people in the world – most of them children. This is New Zealand’s opportunity to lead by example as a Security Council member.

We must play our part as a responsible, humane global citizen.

For a country that’s renowned for punching above our weight on the world stage: when it comes to taking in refugees we lag behind the rest of the world.

But change depends primarily on the will of everyday people: which is why everyday Kiwis need to take a stand and call for a rise in New Zealand’s refugee quota.

This is once again one of the Courageous Conversations we need to have.

Most of New Zealanders will never know what it’s like to flee our home, never knowing if we will see our loved ones again. 

Most of New Zealanders will never know what it’s like to survive a war in our own homeland, or put our lives on hold as we wait for another country to give us a new home.

My plea is for New Zealanders to start punching above our weight not just in sport: New Zealanders need to start punching above our weight when it comes to compassion, kindness and most of all, humanity.

We have a responsibility to do more and to play our role on the world stage, it is the right thing to do.

In years to come when our children ask us what we did as the world faced its worst humanitarian crisis in history: 

  • What will we say to them?  
  • Will we make excuses?  
  • Will we wish we did something?
  • How can we honestly defend a 30-year track record of doing nothing but the bare minimum?

New Zealanders need to start talking about our refugee quota, the time to do something is yesterday: 

We must get some guts and we must increase our refugee quota.  

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy

Dame Susan Devoy DNZM, CBE has worked across the sport, community and charity sectors since she retired undefeated as the world women's squash champion in 1992.

A member and chair of the Halberg Trust, patron of the Muscular Dystrophy Association of New Zealand and other charities, Dame Susan was the Chief Executive Officer and Chair of Sport Bay of Plenty. She has served on the Auckland District Health Board, the Tauranga Energy Consumer Trust and chaired BNZ Partners, Bay of Plenty. 

Since her appointment in April 2013 Dame Susan has taken a high profile role in encouraging New Zealanders to take personal responsibility for race relations and to stand up for victims of racial abuse. 

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