Please help us: plea from refugee families
BY JULIE HOWARD (WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY EDITH LEIGH)
THREE MUSLIM refugee families, one of whom lives in a house described as "not fit for human habitation", have turned to their community desperate for help to find new homes after pleas for assistance hit a brick wall with government and partnered support agencies.
One family has been given notice and the other two families live in appalling houses which have holes in the roof, wet carpets and insufficient heating.
The families are distressed, panicked and gravely worried about their health.
They are appealing to the valley community for help to find safe, warm, dry and affordable homes for the long term in the valley.
All three families are desperate to stay in North East Valley after they were settled here by Immigration New Zealand into private rental properties.
They have made friends in the area, their children are settled at school and they don't want to uproot again to move across the city.
Since the terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch in which 50 people were killed, the families are scared. One family now sleeps all together on the floor after they experienced strangers turning up at night outside their home.
"My family is tired and sick"
Syrians Ahmad Al Ghanem and Hamda Al Salem and their six young children arrived eight months ago and live in dire conditions. “[There are] many holes in roof,” Ahmad says. “My family [is] tired and sick.”
The family has been struck with respiratory illnesses since they moved into their private rental property, and their four-month-old son has needed hospital care.
Community member Mark Dyer who visited the family to see if he could do anything to help was shocked at the state of the house. When he lifted the carpet it was wet underneath, he says.
“The house is unfit for human habitation,” Mr Dyer says.
Edinburgh Realty Property Management has released them from their tenancy but the family has nowhere to go. They feel part of the local school community.
“Can you help my family find a new house?” Mr Al Ghanem asks.
Palestinians Yacoub Altay and Nisreen Abuzahra and their three adult sons arrived only four months ago. They face a similar situation: for $425 per week they rent a house with holes in the roof and floor, water leaking through the ceiling, and no working oven or washing machine.
“I talk with Housing New Zealand, Work and Income, Red Cross,” Yacoub says. “No one listens to me.”
Their son, Yousef (24), says they were excited to come to New Zealand. “We were very happy.” The family wants to stay in North East Valley where they have made friends, rather than going to a new area where they know nobody.
"I don't want to leave my community."
Mustafa and Zahra Allo and their eight children, who are from the Kurdish part of Syria, have been given notice to move out of their house due to renovation plans. Negotiations to remain in the home have been unsuccessful.
“I have been in this house for two years,” says Mustafa. “I don’t want to leave my community.” His children are settled at school where they have made friends and are learning English fast.
Mustafa says people in the valley are kind and good and he feels safe. He wants stability for his family and not to have to move every six months.
“I have a big family. It’s hard. It’s hard for emotion. It’s hard to make another friend. Everything is hard.”
The family has struggled to find a house that is not too expensive, and some landlords turn them down because they are a big family, he says.
It is difficult to concentrate on learning English when he spends so much time looking for a house. “English is very important in our life to get a job, be in the community with people and to make our life good so we don’t need to worry.”
A "heartbreaking situation"
Valley Project manager Tess Trotter says it is a “heartbreaking situation”. “The valley has truly become home for these families; now we need to find them houses.”
North East Valley Normal School principal John McKenzie says if the children have to move to another community it will be unsettling and yet another transition for them to deal with. “Some of them have had lives filled with unsettling events.”
“That’s the hardest thing – to come into a new land and you have no money, no job and you are expected to house your family. If that falls over in the first year what have you got to fall back on? You haven’t got a network of people who are in the know, and the language barrier makes it difficult. I think it’s an issue for the city and government agencies. We can’t ignore this.”
Housing is something the Red Cross and government agencies should be “keeping an eye on” for 4–5 years rather than a few months, Mr McKenzie says.
Rental housing is a problem for many families in the valley, he says. Every few months the school has a family whose lease has expired, looking for a new home in the area.
Ms Trotter says the Valley Project is eager to connect with all relevant people and organisations to help address the big-picture issues and will hold a housing forum in the coming months.
“But for now we just want to find homes for these particular families who have come to us for help after trying all other channels. If you know of anything, please let us know – we can guarantee great long-term tenants who are fantastic, community-minded people.”
Immigration NZ "committed" to ensuring refugees well settled
A Red Cross spokeswoman said the Red Cross could not comment on housing “as this is all arranged by the government”.
In an emailed response to questions, Immigration New Zealand national manager refugee Andrew Lockhart says Immigration NZ is committed to ensuring refugees are well connected and supported to settle into their new communities.
Immigration NZ works with partner agencies and providers to support refugees. “Needs are assessed by the Ministry of Social Development and housing is secured for all quota refugees before they leave the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.”
Housing New Zealand Corporation is responsible for matching public properties in the settlement locations for refugees, Mr Lockhart says.
If Housing New Zealand Corporation does not have a current vacant property, or where the quota refugees do not qualify for public housing, a private rental is sought by Immigration NZ.
In the established settlement locations, which includes Dunedin, the New Zealand Red Cross is contracted by Immigration NZ to support settlement in the community during the first 12 months, says Mr Lockhart. This includes a community orientation programme and connecting refugees to services they require such as doctor’s appointments, English language, education and employment.
“Additional resources are being provided to ensure that quota refugees are able to live in safe, secure, healthy and affordable homes which best suit their assessed needs.”
Mr Lockhart did not address questions asking specifically why refugees would be placed into low quality housing.