Communication Currents

Communication Currents

Stories of Refugee Resettlement in New Zealand

February 27, 2020
Critical and Cultural Studies

In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Kirstie McAllum examines how refugee resettlement volunteers in New Zealand manage their dual mission of teaching refugees about New Zealand culture and helping other New Zealanders appreciate and respect diverse cultural practices. At the time the research was conducted, New Zealand admitted 750 refugees per year; the country, which now has a population of about 4.8 million, currently admits 1,500 refugees annually. Following a six week stay in a resettlement center, community-based resettlement work is conducted by small teams of volunteers, whose role involves facilitating refugees’ interactions with teachers, doctors, and government officials, integrating refugees into broader social networks, and promoting cultural diversity. 

Based on in-depth interviews with 15 resettlement volunteers, McAllum developed six vignettes where volunteers describe interactions with refugees and/or other host nationals where cultural differences were problematic. Portions of the vignettes, which are stylized in stanzas, like poems, are shown here. 

The Schoolyard 

In The Schoolyard, a volunteer described their fear that two refugee teenagers would not be accepted by local students at their new high school due to the way the refugees chose to wear the school uniform and their outdated look: 

They’ve got Elvis-style, quite old-fashioned haircuts
Quite whoosh
They love their leather jackets
Their jeans with white sneakers like T-Birds [from Grease]

Nonetheless, they did not intervene or suggest that the refugees change their behavior in order to fit in. 

Beer Bottles

In this vignette, a volunteer did attempt to correct what they perceived to be inappropriate behavior. The volunteer had taken two Colombian refugees to a liquor store to buy beer. After leaving the parking lot, one of the refugees threw an empty bottle out of the car window. Despite their concern that being very “firm” about New Zealand values meant that they came across as grumpy and rude, the volunteer reacted by stopping their car in the middle of the road: 

“That is not happening here. I will not have something thrown out of my car!”
I got out of the car, got the beer bottle and put it back in the car
“Sorry Karen, sorry Karen!”
She certainly learnt that you don’t throw rubbish out the window in my car
I really made the point

The Outing 

In this vignette, the volunteer described their faulty cultural assumptions about refugees’ background. The volunteer team had organized a winter outing for a group of Afghani refugees in Wellington, a city renowned for its brisk wind. As the volunteer felt that it was cold, they suggested that they should all get into the car to warm up. When the refugees asked for the heater to be turned down, the volunteer made a sarcastic comment about the refugees being used to the heat because of being from Afghanistan. The group then exited the car and went back into the cold. Although the refugees were not wearing jackets, they said the weather was “fine.” The volunteer then joked again about the weather: 

“Oh, but you wouldn’t like the cold”
I’d already made that assumption twice now
As a Kiwi, I associate sand with warmth at a beach
Even though I’d heard that the Sahara Desert is cold at night
To this day I don’t know if they were freezing outside

Throughout the stanza, the volunteer reflected on how cultural biases prevented them from understanding and interacting appropriately with the refugees. 

Seatbelts and Supermarkets

In this vignette, a volunteer described working with a previously upper-class refugee family that had lost their money in their attempt to escape persecution in Iraq. The volunteer felt that the son in the family, who refused to wear a seatbelt in the car and who expected women volunteers to push the cart (trolley) at the grocery store, was behaving inappropriately. These challenging interactions led the volunteer to reflect on the appropriate balance between promoting gender equality, an important cultural value in New Zealand, and respecting the refugee’s worldview: 

He was a sod and he treated his mother like dirt
When we went to the supermarket, he wanted us to drive the trolley around
While he pointed at things on the shelves
This doesn’t go down well in New Zealand society

This is always a flashpoint with volunteers and the refugees
It’s hard to manage these cultural clashes
Whether you say, well this is cultural relativism
Versus these are the norms of our society?
There’s a line to tread and you can’t assert your culture over it.

Family Ties?

In this vignette, a volunteer recounted how her team witnessed troubling interactions among a group of six siblings who were living independently: 

One of the other volunteers had an experience
Where I think he [the older brother] kind of hit one of the girls [a 15-year-old sister]

The group had also observed physical closeness between an older brother and a younger sister. The volunteers were unsure whether the contact was okay, until given a similar cultural context: 

But Pauline, one of the ladies we volunteer with
Her daughter goes out with an Irani
And he says it’s quite normal


McAllum argues that the key issue across the vignettes is who has authority to decide what appropriate cultural practices are. Whereas the volunteer in Beer Bottles claimed authority to decide how refugees should behave in New Zealand, vignettes such as The Schoolyard and Family Ties showed volunteers letting refugees follow their own values and rules, even when their cultural practices could cause problems with integration into the broader society. The Outing and Seatbelts and Supermarkets, in contrast, showed volunteers questioning their own assumptions and cultural practices as well as those of refugees. Dialogues where decision-making about appropriate cultural practices is shared have the greatest potential to help both host nationals and refugees to embrace a wider range of cultural practices. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Kirstie McAllum (2019): Refugee resettlement volunteers as (inter)cultural mediators?, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2019.1653953

About the author (s)

Kirstie McAllum

Université de Montréal

Associate Professor, Department of Communication

Kirstie McAllum