New Zealand's first African MP Ibrahim Omer gets standing ovation after speech on escaping war in Africa as a refugee

New Labour MP Ibrahim Omer, New Zealand's first north African-born Member of Parliament, received a standing ovation after his speech on escaping war in Eritrea.

Omer, the second MP to have entered Parliament as a refugee after Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, delivered his maiden speech on Thursday, recounting his experience fleeing his home to eventually end up in New Zealand.  

"The story of my journey is the story of every refugee displaced and forced from their home country and their loved ones. My vision is for my journey to give hope to the many other people with stories like mine."

Omer grew up in Eritrea, a small country in east Africa of about 3.2 million people. The nation sits on the Red Sea coast opposite Yemen, and borders Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti. 

Omer said he grew up "full of hopes and ambitions and dreams" and wanted to be a football player like Christiano Ronaldo or a politician. 

"Mine was a happy and typical Eritrean upbringing. I grew up in a tolerant society where people from different cultures and religious backgrounds embraced each other. My extended family were Muslims but our neighbours were Christians, and we shared our lives together."

But Omer said his dreams were "cut short" by the "brutal dictatorship" of President Isaias Afwerki, a position he has held since after the 1990s Eritrean War of Independence. 

After World War II Eritrea was annexed from Italy to Britain until 1951. Instead of getting independence after British colonisation, calls for independence by Eritreans were ignored. The United Nations favoured a joint Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern embraces Ibrahim Omer after his maiden speech in Parliament.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern embraces Ibrahim Omer after his maiden speech in Parliament. Photo credit: Getty

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front defeated the Ethiopian government in 1991, and gained de facto independence in 1993. But President Afwerki has held power ever since, never holding an election. 

"In my home country I saw how politics and politicians ruined people's lives, and, hence, I gave up my dream to be a politician. My homeland has a long history of invasion and colonisation by, first, the Italians, the Brits, and then the Ethiopians," said Omer. 

"The impacts of colonisation are still being experienced as I speak here today."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize after signing a peace deal with Eritrea in 2018 which ended a nearly 20-year military stalemate following their 1998-2000 border war.

But according to Human Rights Watch, Eritrea has no legislature, no independent civil society organisations or media, and no independent judiciary. 

A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in 2016 alone, 52,000 Eritreans fled the country, mainly due to indefinite compulsory national service for every Eritrean over the age of 18. 

According to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrean government's human rights record is among the worst in the world. Some estimates say up to 12 percent of the country's population has fled - and Omer was one of them. 

'I left behind everything I loved'

"I was drafted to the national service at a very young age, as a high school student. I was subjected to extreme hardships. The national service in Eritrea is meant to be for 18 months, but in reality, it's indefinite. Once you are in, there is no way out of it," Omer said. 

"Gross human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment are normal. I knew I had no choice but to leave before my time came. So I left behind everything I loved: my country, my family, my friends, and my dreams, including the long list of things I wanted to be and do."

Omer took a huge risk and fled to Sudan in 2003. He made it across the border and handed himself in to the UNHCR camp and Sudanese authorities. He was granted refugee status to stay in Sudan, and five years later left for New Zealand. 

"I had never heard of this place, to be honest, but an immigration officer told me it was one of the most peaceful countries in the world. That was good enough for me, because I was sick and tired of looking over my shoulder."

Omer said from the moment he landed at Auckland Airport in May 2008 he felt the "manaakitanga and aroha" he heard New Zealand was known for. 

After six weeks in Māngere, Omer moved to Wellington to start a new life. But it wasn't easy. 

"I got a job as a security guard, but I left it after I was attacked and beaten in the middle of the night. I did farm work, fruit picking, and started cleaning. My low wages meant I couldn't save to study, and in order to support my family back home, I picked up more and more hours until I was doing 80 hours a week."

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and new Labour MP Ibrahim Omer.
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and new Labour MP Ibrahim Omer. Photo credit: File

Omer's circumstances started to change after he worked at Victoria University in Wellington as a cleaner. In 2013 his union organiser asked him to speak at a forum at the university on behalf of the other cleaners. 

"I was scared and I wanted to turn away when I saw that the hub was packed. But the response to my speech changed something inside me," he said. 

"I told them that my dream was not to end up as a cleaner, working 80-plus hours a week. My dream was to study, but I am stuck in the trap that is poverty. I got active in the union and the Living Wage Movement and in my refugee background community and the Labour Party. I got a pay rise and I decided to go to university."

Since becoming involved in politics at university, Omer has as chaired the board of ChangeMakers Resettlement Forum, been involved in governance for the Living Wage Movement, and knocked on hundreds of doors and made thousands of calls as a Labour volunteer.

"My life has been transformed so quickly. In 12 years after moving to New Zealand, and in the five years after being a cleaner, four years after graduating, I became a Member of this Parliament. This is the result of the overwhelming support that I have received."

Omer thanked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson for their "personal support" for him.