Refugee crisis: People seeking help are the same as us stuff nation

Brannavan Gnanalingam has enjoyed Islamic hospitality all over the world, such as here in Yazd, Iran.
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Brannavan Gnanalingam has enjoyed Islamic hospitality all over the world, such as here in Yazd, Iran.

OPINION: A New Zealand passport is one of the most powerful travel documents around.

It allows you to jump queues and skip paying for many visas. It allowed me to live in France for a year, or friends to live in the United Kingdom or Canada or Brazil, all without too much difficulty.

A New Zealander was recently mocked for complaining about the welcome mat not being rolled out to her in London – yet, the entitlement to an OE or to explore the world are seen as integral to growing up in New Zealand. Looking out to the world, rather than looking inwards.

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This complacency about travel extends to how we describe ourselves when we travel.

There is something quaint about describing moving overseas as an "overseas experience". We're certainly not migrants. Expats perhaps, but certainly nothing more than that, even if people have lived in London or Sydney for decades.

This outward looking nature perhaps explains why so many New Zealanders have been moved by the ongoing refugee crisis in the world and have signed up to help. But the semantic cuteness that undermines our own travel status hints perhaps at the resistance to do anything more than the bare minimum. The people on the boats are migrants, or refugees, or simply an other – they certainly cannot have the same motivations as us. They're not expats, or seeking overseas experience.

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It is clear, but rarely stated, that a major reason for opposing refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Eritrea stems from Islamophobia. It assumes that there is a single unified concept of Islam, that the fascistic brutality of a tiny minority can somehow be used to define over a billion of various Islams. I have travelled in 15 Islamic (or predominantly Islamic) countries, and it would be impossible to state the Islams I saw in Uzbekistan bears any resemblance to the Islams I witnessed in Senegal.

Yet I have been the recipient of famous Islamic hospitality everywhere I've gone. A friend and I were travelling in Mali in 2007-8. We were going to Djenné to see the famous mud mosque. Our bus was meant to drop us in the town about 6pm. Instead we were dropped about 30km away at 2am in the middle of nowhere. Luckily I was yarning away to someone on the bus, and he knocked on a tobacco salesman's hut for us. The salesman usually stood by the side of the road hoping to sell a few cigarettes. His hut was about the size of a tent. The salesman unrolled his prayer mat for my mate, the man on the bus, and me to sleep on, while he slept outside. He then organised a truck for us to hitch a ride to Djenné on the next morning. If three people knocked on my house at 2am, I doubt my reaction would have been the same.

I also received the same hospitality when I travelled in Syria, a country that took in countless refugees over the last hundred years, including Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugees displaced by conflict. When a friend and I first arrived in 2010, our fellow taxi passengers stopped a random van and paid it to take my mate and me to our hostel. In Iran at the height of the sanctions in 2012, my wife and I couldn't walk for more than half an hour in public without being invited to share in a picnic or into someone's house for a tea or sweets. Beirut gives Berlin a run for its money in how to party.

What my travels have underlined is that the people seeking help are not that much different to me. They're not an obscure other to be feared. Most people want the same things: shelter, freedom, to communicate, and the best for their family and friends. 

In the face of the generosity shown by other countries, our refugee efforts in New Zealand appear stingy.
YVES HERMAN/REUTERS

In the face of the generosity shown by other countries, our refugee efforts in New Zealand appear stingy.

The New Zealand government could do much more to respond to the refugee crisis than that currently announced – an increase of 200 Syrians per annum for the next three years. My desire for more stems not only from my travel experience, but also from my personal circumstances. I was born in Sri Lanka. When my mother was pregnant with me in July 1983, in reaction to the killing of soldiers by the Tamil Tigers, mobs were given electoral roll information of where Tamils lived. 

Thousands of Tamils were killed in an orgy of violence. My mother's next door neighbour was a Muslim family. My mother, along with my grandparents sheltered with them. When a mob arrived, the patriarch of the Muslim family told the mob that my family had gone, and we were saved. 

Countless Tamils left Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and the Tamil diaspora worldwide has been incredibly successful economically and socially.  We ended up in New Zealand, and my family are immeasurably grateful for that.

New Zealand is a country built on movement. It has been built on "floods" of people coming in. And each time, the same fears about what it means to New Zealand are stoked. But our country would be immeasurably poorer – intellectually, culturally, sporting-wise, and, yes, economically – were it not for these so-called floods. And I'll be frank: the food would be terrible. I can only hope that Wellington will soon have Damascene pickles, coupled with fresh falafel. 

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The willingness to accept more refugees ought not to be a partisan political issue. I've got plenty of friends on the right and left side of the spectrum who agree that much more can be done. That in the face of the generosity shown by Germany, Lebanon, Turkey, and even Australia, our grudging increase is overwhelmingly stingy. This is an extraordinary situation – the worst since World War II. There are also plenty of people who are willing to help refugees when they arrive, and there is will from the churches, from NGOs, and ordinary Kiwis to ensure that we can deal with an extra influx.

In the next couple of months, many New Zealanders will be watching the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup, willing the team to show the world that we punch above our weight. Fans are proud that we can beat flashier countries that throw more money and have greater player numbers.

The fans would have had a fit, for example, if the All Blacks gave up against Ireland in 2013, when they were stuck in their half in injury time. Instead, the All Blacks rolled up their sleeves, went through countless phases and passes, and simply did the job. We wouldn't expect the All Blacks at the World Cup to say, "it's too difficult, we're not going to try".

We look outwards when we travel the world. We are lucky that our passports let us look outwards. Our response to the refugee crisis shouldn't be insular. 

Brannavan Gnanalingam is a novelist, reviewer, and lawyer based in Wellington.

 - Stuff.co.nz

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