The AMC's Graeme Acton was recently in Otago and Southland, and while in the southern town of Oamaru , he dropped in on the local "Waitaki Newcomers Network" , helping recent migrants from Asia ( and elsewhere ) find their feet and enjoy life in their adopted country
It’s a place that’s always been attractive to migrants, but these days the coastal Otago town of Oamaru is building something of a reputation as an increasing diverse local community with a big heart.
Key to that welcoming atmosphere is the “Waitaki Newcomers Network”, and its dynamo organiser, Christine Dorsey. Born and raised in the town, Christine had been teaching in nearby Kakanui, before she was drawn back to her hometown with a job offer in 2012. A few years later she add the role of Migrant Support Coordinator to her job description.
The Waitaki Newcomers network comes under the umbrella of the Waitaki Multicultural Council, both publicly-funded organisations, kept going through the efforts of volunteers, and working to make the migrant experience to this Otago town a fulfilling and exciting experience.
Much of the network's funding comes via the Lotteries Commission, and the Ministry of Social Development.
While Oamaru itself has a long-established Chinese-Kiwi population associated mostly with market gardening, the town has until reasonably recently been predominantly European, and associated strongly with Victorian-era New Zealand, when many of its grand Oamaru stone buildings were constructed. Oamaru was one of many South Island towns built “on the sheep’s back” following the goldrush, and the establishment of sheep stations in the nearby Waitaki Valley.
By 1866, Oamaru was a thriving service centre of 5000 people, and things improved markedly a decade later, when a road-rail bridge was constructed across the Waitaki River near Glenavy.
All that was a very long time ago, but the town remains a strong commercial centre, and attractive to migrants from across the world.
Social meetings are the lifeblood of the newcomers network, with various outings and get-togethers arranged on a weekly basis working to bring recent migrants together and assist them in navigating a new life in New Zealand.
“It’s a wonderful thing to see’ says Christine, “these people come into the country and get a certain amount of assistance at a national level, but then they are in our town, and in some cases they need some assistance to avoid becoming isolated”.
“We’ve got people here right now from across Asia and the world .. Malaysia, Korea, Hong Kong , Sri Lanka.” says Christine.
Migrant numbers in Oamaru have increased markedly in the last ten years, driven partly by a booming dairy farming economy.
And its seems the town has created its own centre of gravity around some occupations.
“Right now it seems to be Sri Lankan mechanics” says Christine. “But also we’ve seen an increase in the number of halal slaughtermen at the local meat works.”
The Alliance Group’s Pukeuri meat processing plant is the town’s biggest employer, with many new migrants picking up jobs there.
In a small room behind the historic Abacus House on Oamaru’s main street, Christine Dorsey and her latest group of Waitaki Newcomers spending a sunny Thursday morning coming to grips with the fraught issue of possible natural disasters, in particular earthquakes, which many of the small group have never experienced.
There’s talk of emergency kits and possible tsunami warnings, and some real hands-on advice being passed on to a group who have no local extended family network to fall back on in a time of crisis.
“Many are very staunch.” says Christine. "Some people can hesitate to talk about the pressures they are feeling in a new foreign country, but it’s so good to have an agency like ours to relieve some of that pressure migrants naturally feel, and to explain stuff like civil defence and earthquakes, and what you do when something really big happens.”
Despite the numerous natural hazards, almost all the newcomers raise their hands when asked if they would want to stay in New Zealand.
Waitaki Newcomers is part of a wider network of agencies across the country comprising some 40-50 groups, all with the same kaupapa, and with motivated local volunteers at their heart.
“It’s got some challenges.” says Christine, ”Especially lately as Lotteries has changed its funding model - now we can’t apply for more than one year at a time and that makes it quite difficult to plan out”
Also attending this morning’s coffee group is Maria Buldain.
Originally from Uruguay, she arrived in Oamaru some 17 years ago to something of a mixed reception.
"I was probably the only South American in town, and some didn't know how to deal with me." she says
She went on to help establish the town’s Multicultural Council, which she continues to head. “ Its so different now.” she admits. "There are still some conservative aspects to the town, but really I love it here, the whole character of the town. I love it.”
Maria says she can see the trends, in Oamaru. “Its going to grow, its going to attract more migrants, and support services are going to need more funding”.
That’s a concern echoed by Christine Dorsey who’s role as a one-woman migrant assistance service is flat out. “ We just want some integration here, and I’ve been doing this for four years and I’m begin to struggle to keep on top of it all.”
“But we have a great team of people here, and funding at present is looking ok..”
“There are over 500 families in our database now , and it’s a reality of Covid life - there will be more migrants here, so we need to be prepared and be in a position where we can meet their needs effectively.”
“It will become a more diverse town, and one where personal hardships among migrants can hopefully be kept to a minimum, because things can go wrong if you have a migrant community that feels under real pressure.”
- Asia Media Centre