With the human crisis unfolding in Europe – and our own government's evasiveness over how much we should help – it is worth remembering that this is hardly the first time refugees have been at the centre of political controversy in New Zealand.
At the same time, David Haywood was approaching the issue from a different direction, with Refugee Stories Our Politicians Never Tell Us: Part I - Shahzad Ghahreman, an extraordinary first-person account in which Shahzad observes:
It's surprising how many times New Zealanders have told us that we could be better off in Australia - but we would never accept that. I believe that our family has thrived in New Zealand because of the environment. Even the most talented person would get nowhere in a bad environment. New Zealand has been wonderful to us - it is our home. We wouldn't abandon it for a few extra dollars.
David followed that with Refugee Stories Our Politicians Never Tell Us: Part II - Lan Le-Ngoc, a remarkable story of childhood amid the social collapse of post-war Vietnam, and risking everything to get here. As David notes, Lan, now a scientist and engineer, "has numerous scientific publications to his credit, as well as a number of commercial patents which have added significant value to New Zealand industry. His scientific work was recognized by a Royal Society Medal in 2001."
For his part, Lan speaks of his love for New Zealand and determination to to stay here and contribute – but laments the racism still suffered by his own New Zealand-born children:
Only a few weeks ago I dropped my daughter off at school, and as I went back to my car there were some kids standing at the front gate. Just primary school children - only nine or ten years old. And one of them shouted at me: "You f**king Asian. Go home!"
That incident really depressed me - because you can judge a society by its children. Where would a child have learnt those attitudes? Just nine or ten years old, and already he thought that Asians shouldn't be in this country. The message is actually out there in society for him. It was a terribly worrying thing to happen at my daughter's school, and it's a real concern of mine that these new racist attitudes might affect her as well.
I suspect that part of the responsibility for such attitudes can be laid at the feet of certain politicians. The rhetoric of people like Winston Peters and Don Brash has actually promoted anti-immigrant sentiment. It was probably always there to a certain extent, but when senior politicians start spouting this sort of nonsense then it isn't merely airing the views of a racist minority - it actually starts to incite racism.
Easily-led people take such political rhetoric as legitimization of their own bigoted views. They think it gives them carte blanche to treat immigrants rudely in shops, or to shout insults from their cars. Of course, I'm not suggesting that this is the intention of Peters or Brash. They're just doing it to get votes. I'm sure that after the election they forget all about it. But they don't realize the long-term impact that it's having on people like me and my family - who can be easily identified as having ancestry from somewhere other than Europe.
The following year, I accompanied another Vietnamese refugee, Mitchell Pham, back to his home country and wrote about it for The Listener. Mitchell, who attended school here before forming the IT company Augen with his university friends – and then opening a branch of Augen in Vietnam – had a scarely-believable story of escape that began like this:
When Mitchell Pham’s mother quietly woke him early one morning in 1984, he knew his life was about to change. She had a bag packed for him. You’re going on a trip to the countryside, she said, but don’t wake your brother and sister or they might get jealous.
“And she gave me a big kiss,” he recalls. “It was from the way my mum kissed me on that day that I sort of knew it was not going to be a normal day.”
He was 12. He would be 25 before his mother kissed him again.
I had the privilege of dining with Mitchell and his parents in Saigon. It was a memorable meal.
The common thread in these three stories is the determination and dedication shown by those to whom we gave a chance, and their subsequent commitment and contribution to New Zealand.
There is one more recent account to share, one that addresses the pernicious rationalisation I've been seeing proferred about the current crisis: that these people really just want to be at home and around people like them, as if we'd be somehow culturally interfering with them by giving them shelter. The truth is that the families fleeing Syria don't presently have a home. Michael Earley posted this comment to a debate on that idea on my Facebook page yesterday:
I'm in Malta right now, the first place refugees end up en in Europe route from Syria (if coming via Sea). These people are dying en mass at in the Med and are desperate. They don't want to go home - their homes are fucked. Their countries are fucked. They are fleeing death and destruction.
They are willing to do almost anything, take any risk to get somewhere safer for themselves and their families.
Tomorrow I'm off to Sicily - where we will land at Palermo, the main processing point for most refugees in the med. Hopefully we can volunteer or so something to help while we are there. It's heartbreaking seeing whats going on and politicians arguing over bullshit while people die.
These refugees don't want welfare, social services or handouts. They simply want somewhere were they can safely raise their families without the risk of bombs landing on them or their kids being killed on the way to school.
Isn't that what you'd want for your family? And with all the talk about national values amid the flag debate, wouldn't you want offering that chance to our share of those in need to stand as a marker of New Zealand values?