When Lorna Johnson was told that the refugee sponsorship program was being extended, she knew she wanted to get involved.
She posted on her Facebook page and more than a dozen people responded. Now a group of seven of them is getting ready to welcome their first refugee family to Palmerston North.
Twenty-one groups and companies will host refugees under the government’s new community sponsorship.
The comprehensive pilot, which will be conducted by the Ministry of Trade, Innovation and Employment through HOST International Aotearoa, will welcome 150 refugees over three years.
Community sponsors can nominate refugees to take in, or they can be matched with a refugee family by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before coming to New Zealand.
Individuals can join an existing sponsor group to support a refugee family in finding jobs and homes, enroll in schools and doctors, and make new friends.
HOST National Program Manager Birgit Grafarend-Watungwa said it had proved very popular.
“We’ve been blown away by the interest over the past few months, and it’s been really amazing – to see a wide range of organizations, communities across the country – not just in the cities but also in smaller regions – got on board and wanted in a humanitarian way to resettle refugees.
“We have faith-based organizations, we have businesses, we have communities from ethnic backgrounds, we have refugee-led organizations, and they’re all over the country as well.”
Johnson is a Palmerston North councilor and was already part of a trust that helps reunite refugee families. Five of her group are migrants, two were born in New Zealand and at least one has refugee experience.
“When the extended pilot was approved, I thought it would actually be a good idea to start a refugee sponsorship community group in Palmerston North. So I got a group of friends who were excited. Two of the people in my group are members of the Pakistan-New Zealand Friendship Association, so we approached them and they were very happy to be our kind of umbrella group.
“I just know how important it is for people to get off to a good start when they come to New Zealand, to have support, to be matched with services, to make friends, to feel welcome. And I want a really good experience for someone in need of resettlement – we know we can’t resettle every refugee in the world but we can help some people.
“All I did was put it on my personal Facebook to say, look, I really want to do this, is there anyone who wants to do it with me?”
The 150 refugees who will arrive in the national Community Organization Refugee Sponsorship (CORS) scheme are in addition to the 1500 refugees per year, and have different criteria.
They are under 45, understand basic English and have either work skills or a tertiary education.
A smaller pilot project in 2018 welcomed families, including some from war-torn Syria.
The Palmerston North group does not yet know who their family is or where they come from – UNHCR will choose and Immigration New Zealand will check their eligibility first.
“We decided that we wanted to follow the matched trajectory and the reason for that is that it means we won’t be in a difficult situation if we have to choose one family over another. UNHCR will recommend a family to us, and the family will that we will sponsor.
“You have to create a whole settlement plan, looking at every aspect of how you will support the family when they arrive. Everything from financially to enrolling children in school, to health care, to supporting them with work. Every aspect of resettlement you can think of – we’ve already had to research what’s available locally and see how we would support the family.”