'Dress as refugees' day defended by school principal

Christchurch's Middleton Grange School.
Christchurch's Middleton Grange School. Photo credit: Middleton Grange School / Website

The principal of a Christchurch school is defending a 'dress as refugees' mufti day that was called "well-intentioned but ignorant", by Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy.

On Thursday, Christchurch's Middleton Grange School held a mufti day for a gold coin fundraiser for World Vision.

"We are asking children to dress as refugees in old ragged clothes if possible," the school told parents.

"A good way to develop understanding and compassion is to experience a little bit of what it feels like to be poor."

Middleton Grange principal Richard Vanderpyl told Newshub the school had two complaints about the mufti day and a lot of support from parents.

"In actual fact they [parents] used the opportunity to talk to their children about what is happening in other places of the world and just the hardship that some of these children face, so in that sense it's been a really good opportunity."

"We've also structured it so that our teachers did ask questions in the classroom so it wasn't just 'lets all wear these clothes and leave it at that' there was a very strong teaching around it so our pupils became very aware," Mr Vanderpyl said.

"I don't want to minimise any of the issues these children face around the world or even personal experiences but overall our pupils have had their hearts and minds shaped by this experience.

The school is aware of refugee pupils and families within the school community and has tried to deal with the situation sensitively, he says.

But Dame Susan Devoy told NZME it seemed like another case of people being "well-intentioned but pretty ignorant and unaware".

"The stigma around refugees and the conversation narrative we have in New Zealand needs to change."

"While a refugee living in a camp might not have many luxuries or provisions, even when they turn up in this country they often have very little, in reality they're often professional people.

"It's continuing that stigma that refugees are poor people that come from impoverished backgrounds."

The move has also led to backlash from some members of the community, who accuse the school of taking refugee children "back to that place of hurt and uncertainty".

"I am finding it really hard to wrap my head around the whole idea that no one thought this through. That no one saw all the red flags popping up," a concerned community member who wanted to remain anonymous told Newshub.

"That no one was empathetic enough to realise that this is a culturally sensitive issue. That poverty and being a refugee have got no correlation whatsoever.

"That being a refugee is actually a loss of identity, a loss of freedom and a loss of dignity. That there is a lot of trauma involved, persecution and agony in search of safety for refugees."

The school told Newshub the initiative was created by the junior student council, which wanted to ensure that students had a raised awareness of the cause they were raising money for.

"Seventy-five percent of the primary school students wore clothing that allowed them to show their empathy and support for children in Syria who face a much more harsh and difficult environment," school principal Richard Vanderpyl told Newshub.

"I believe it has raised a much greater awareness of the sadness and difficulty refugee children face when displaced from their homes by war."

Mr Vanderpyl says the school "quickly responded" to the people who complained and "listened to their concerns".

"We are well aware of the immensely difficult journey refugee families and children have had being displaced, something our own children will never experience in that way, and would not desire to cause hurt," he told Newshub.

The AM Show social media presenter Aziz Al-Sa'afin came to New Zealand as a refugee when he was a toddler. He says while he applauds the school for raising awareness about the issues refugees face, the 'dress up like a refugee' idea is "extremely insensitive".

"Telling these students to dress in 'poor' clothing because that's how refugees look like is inappropriate and offensive," he says.

"This school has instantly created an image in these children's heads of how refugees look like right from an early age.

"There are so many avenues, dressing 'poor' certainly shouldn't be one of them. If this is the school's process of education surround refugees, quite frankly it's misguided and they need to re-think their curriculum."

The school's next mufti day is in April to raise money for the cyclone recovery in Tonga.

"Please wear Tongan clothes if you have them," the school says.