Refugee family lifting the heavy weight of fear through new life in Manawatū

Shenenas Norbasha and her husband Mohammed Norbasha with the sewing machine that Red Cross volunteer Esmee Rowden found for the family.
DAVID UNWIN/STUFF
Shenenas Norbasha and her husband Mohammed Norbasha with the sewing machine that Red Cross volunteer Esmee Rowden found for the family.

A Myanmar refugee family who have settled in Palmerston North are finding their feet. Carly Thomas hears their story.

Mohammed Norbasha can walk without looking over his shoulder now. He can leave his house, knowing it will still be his home when he returns.

The Myanmar refugee finds it hard to explain the enormity of that.

His English is good, it's not a language barrier. It's just difficult to adequately convey the fear he has experienced to someone who lives in in a politically stable country.

"It is hard for people to understand."

Mohammed Norbasha comes from the Mon State, where his passport and his birth certificate were taken from him, where he became "a stateless person".

"Our government don't recognise us as citizens because of our ethnicity, so we have no nationality. It made our lives so difficult to be in our country and we felt unsafe with no peace in our lives. We had no free religion and no free movement."

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Norbasha got over the border to Thailand when he was 9 years old, leaving his family behind and knowing he would probably never be able to go back.

"We had government pressure and we lived in fear, and then they confiscated our land. My parents were arrested and sent to jail without doing anything."

"For my whole life I have kept my own fear inside me. I had to watch out wherever I was – army officers, police officers, authorities – who will ask me for my ID? Who will question me about who I am and where am I from?"

His journey to New Zealand has been a long one, from Thailand he got to Malaysia and then to Indonesia.

It ended last September when, having gained refugee status for he and his family, wife Shenenas and two teenage children,  Bach Shah Norbasha and Zahara Norbasha, they were warmly welcomed at Auckland Airport.

The Red Cross has helped the family settle into their new life, particularly volunteer Esmee Rowden.

"The things like where we can get food and how we do that," says Shenenas Norbasha. "She is a very good person. I am so happy because we are free from our difficulty and hardship. Here in Palmerston North we have this house and things that we have never had before."

Red Cross volunteer Esmee Rowden, with sewing materials she has collected for refugee families.
DAVID UNWIN/STUFF
Red Cross volunteer Esmee Rowden, with sewing materials she has collected for refugee families.

But one thing she didn't have was a sewing machine.

When the day came to pick out the children's school uniforms, there was nothing that would fit the petite Zahara, so her mum bought the smallest sizes she could and pulled out the needle and thread. 

When Rowden saw what a beautiful job she had done, she set about finding her a sewing machine – something Shenenas Norbasha had never owned before.

With the help of her daughter Thalia Kehoe Rowden, who spread the word via her blog, Rowden netted not just one sewing machine, but enough for other families as well.

A call-out to retirement villages  led to a large amount of material, buttons, thread and sewing paraphernalia being donated.

The Norbasha family came to New Zealand from Myanmar last year. From left: Mohammed Norbasha, Shenenas Norbasha, Akbar Bach Shah Norbasha and Zahara Norbasha.
DAVID UNWIN/STUFF
The Norbasha family came to New Zealand from Myanmar last year. From left: Mohammed Norbasha, Shenenas Norbasha, Akbar Bach Shah Norbasha and Zahara Norbasha.

Shenenas Norbasha got sewing, and after a little instruction from Rowden, she was "foot to the peddle and away".

"I went back the next day and she had made a top for her daughter, a beautiful little fitted top with button holes. It was amazing."

As her confidence with sewing grew, so did the pile of tops for her children. She treasured machine and the kindness that brought it to her. And to be able to provide for her family was unbelievable.

"I cannot believe yet, our life here and what we have. The children are very happy and very excited," Shenenas Norbasha says. 

Their children's education is paramount to the couple. Freyberg High School is the first school Akbar Bach Shah and Zahara have ever attended.

Mohammed Norbasha says he didn't trust the schools in Indonesia. They were full of crime, so he chose to teach the children English himself. 

He puts a heavy emphasis on speaking English, and considers it a gift.

"I have never been to school, but I knew I needed to know English. I want a good future and education for my children. Education is very special. I never had that, I never held a pencil and pen, I only listened. Without education you cannot be a full human."

Akbar Bach Shah is enjoying technology and having friends, and Zahara loves her art class.  Each of them have a bedroom to call their own, and they think it's amazing.

As for Mohammed, he says he has no words to explain his gratitude.  He has a story of fear that can only be told in the past tense, and one that will not become his children's present or future.

"There are no questions, no gun holders, no one is out to terrorise us," he says.  

"This country is safe, I believe that and I trust the Government and its people. We feel peaceful and happy, and it is an unbelievable thing for us."

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