Former refugee now helps others settle in Nelson

Ngun Uk Thang-Lian with some of the volunteers who helped him when he came to Nelson as a refugee in 2006. He is now ...
Marion van Dijk

Ngun Uk Thang-Lian with some of the volunteers who helped him when he came to Nelson as a refugee in 2006. He is now helping another family as a Red Cross Refugee Services volunteer.

A Burmese man who came to Nelson as a refugee and now volunteers to settle others who have fled persecution is calling on Nelsonians to lend a hand.

Ngun Uk Thang-Lian, known as Pauk to his friends, fled Burma in 1989 after political uprisings.

He came to New Zealand in 2006 as a refugee after living in Malaysia for six years as an asylum seeker.

Nelson takes up to 75 refugees a year - 10 per cent of the annual New Zealand quota. It also trains about 60 volunteers each year to help the refugees settle. It is currently calling on more people to get involved, to help people like Pauk. 

Pauk did not know what to expect when he learned he and his wife would be moving to Nelson, through the Red Cross Refugee Services.

Pauk had grown used to the skyscraper buildings in Kuala Lumpur. Coming to Nelson was a shock.

"In Malaysia it's very different, very high buildings."

He recalls looking around for tall buildings in Nelson.

He and his wife could not speak English, so they relied heavily on the Red Cross volunteers to get them used to their new lives.

Volunteers had to help them with "everything".

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From enrolling their daughter into school, to buying groceries, to learning English.

Pauk studied English for two years and has been working fulltime at a supermarket for the past eight years. His wife works for Sealord - they do alternating shifts so only see each other for 15 minutes some days.

They have three children, one at Nelson College for Girls and two at Victory Primary School.

"It's a very hard life - we are newcomers with lots to do."

Because Pauk knows how important the volunteers were in helping him and his family set up their lives in Nelson, he now volunteers with the Red Cross Refugee Services as well, helping new former-refugees in sorting out their education needs. He is part of a team which helps another Burmese family.

Sylvia Huxtable has been volunteering to help settle former refugees in Nelson  for two years. She says she was inspired to help after reading about the plight of refugees around the world.

Wars and the damage they cause seems so far away, but volunteering to help people already in the country was a good, positive step.

"People wring their hands with 'what we can do?' We can help the people here."

Sylvia helps families navigate Work and Income and how to manage their bank accounts.

"It's such a rewarding thing to do. I'm continually humbled by working with these people, it's a good reality check on how comfortable our lives are."

She said the Red Cross was very supportive of the volunteers.

Red Cross Refugee Services volunteer programme team leader Jettie Zeestraten is calling on volunteers to join the next training course, on June 5 for a weekend.

No prior experience is required, and they were after people from a variety of backgrounds.

Being a volunteer was about "being a welcoming face in the community".

Jettie says she often hears volunteers get a lot more out of the experience than they put it.

Volunteers were supported by the Red Cross, they helped out with the day to day practical living and understanding, while Red Cross has a team of case workers, social workers and resettlement experts to help with other aspects of settling in. 

They wanted volunteers to commit to a minimum of 3 to 6 months but often found people would come back to volunteer for other families.

 - Stuff

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