Opinion: NZ refugee quota 'shameful'

Opinion: NZ refugee quota 'shameful'

This week I felt ashamed for the first time in a while.

I've felt embarrassed. The other week I walked into a pole because I was looking at my phone playing Candy Crush. Someone laughed. My cheeks flushed.

But embarrassment is different from shame.

I felt a deep shame when I spoke to Yahya Sheikha, the first refugee accepted by New Zealand from the Syrian civil war.

Mr Sheikha arrived here on October 7 last year after he fled Syria in February, desperately seeking a new life for his family.

When I visited him on Saturday to ask if he thought the New Zealand Government was doing enough to help Syrians trying to flee the crisis, his two-and- a-half-year-old daughter, Sarah, was playing peek-a-boo with the cameraman.

So of course we spoke about three-year-old Aylan Kurdi.

Mr Sheikha said he was Syria's child. Aylan could be any of their sons.

And then he asked the question, the question that caused the shame. There was fire in his eyes. His speech sped up. It was pure passion. Rage.

"Do we need, as countries, as governments, something bad or tragic to move our emotions to sympathise with others? Do we need that?"

And the shameful thing is, I did need that. I needed the pictures of Aylan to understand.

I'd read about Syria. But by "read about it" I mean I read the headline, I read the first three paragraphs, thought, 'Gosh, that's awful,' and then I turned the page. I heard the CBS reporters begin and thought, 'Gosh, that's awful,' and then I averted my eyes back to Candy Crush.

But seeing the pictures of a three-year-old boy washed up on a beach broke me. I wept. It stirred compassion. It stirred sympathy.

And along with the rest of the country it made me question: Why aren't we doing more?

The numbers have been drilled into our minds since Aylan's death. New Zealand has a quota of 750 refugees per year. The quota hasn't increased since 1987. And according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) we fall 88th in the world per capita at hosting refugees.

That quota of 750 a year equates to 0.3 refugees per 1000 New Zealanders. Our big brothers across the ditch take 1.51 per 1000 Aussies. Sweden? They take 14.77 per 1000.

Out of 4 million Syrian refugees, New Zealand has taken just 121 – 33 of which were asylum seekers, and five under family reunification.

Mr Sheikha was one of the lucky ones. He had been detained in a Thai prison for almost six months for using a fake passport before the UNHCR arranged for him to come to New Zealand. His children and wife joined him in New Zealand in March this year under the family reunification scheme.

He's grateful, but he also had a message for the Government.

"They need to do something more, in order to feel that they did their best."

While Mr Sheikha spoke, I searched for rationalisations in my head.

Maybe they think they are doing their best. Maybe we can't take more refugees. Where would they work? Mr Sheikha is an incredible man; he was a top manager of a retail store in Syria and he wants to work. But he is still searching for a part-time job. On top of that, our unemployment rate is already pretty high. Where would they live? We have a housing crisis in Auckland. I'd love for someone to stay with me but I live in a one-bedroom house with my partner. Where would they sleep?

But Mr Sheikha inadvertently shut me down again. I was making excuses, and bad ones at that.

He, his wife and four children live in a three-bedroom home. His wife's brother and his family from Syria are in Lebanon waiting until the United Nations can find them a home. Their seven-year-old son has diabetes; he's suffering. Mr Sheikha wants them out of there. And this is what he told his local MP.

"If it is difficult to offer him accommodation I am ready to host him with his family in my house, just to rescue them from the situation he is living in."

He gestured to the sofas in his lounge.

His door is open, so why isn't ours?

It's shameful.