Ideasroom

Success: The double-edged sword for minorities

When refugees succeed, it propagates the underlying sentiment that they must meet a series of criteria before being granted acceptance by mainstream NZ, writes Bilal Nasier 

During the University of Auckland’s Refugee Week a story was published about me - a former asylum-seeker who, despite being forced to flee war-torn Afghanistan at the age of four - being accepted into the Doctor of Clinical Psychology programme. This success story was met with an overwhelmingly positive response on the university’s social media.

But unbeknown to anyone reading this latest story, in the week following my family’s arrival in 1999 another article had been published about us on the front page of the Dominion Post. Only this time the narrative was almost the complete opposite to that of the university’s. Public response to seeing the words 'Immigration Scam' plastered as the headline would not have evoked anything remotely resembling the empathetic replies and heart reactions left on the university’s Facebook post.

Has the country’s perception of refugees changed so drastically over the past 20 years or is there something else that led to this extreme shift in narrative?

Could it be that, upon arrival, neither I nor my family, had yet proven our worth to the country? We did not yet fit the criteria of the 'deserving refugee’ – one who is exceptional in every facet of their life, has an unbridled enthusiasm to assimilate and most importantly, will remain ever-grateful to the country that granted them safety. Back in 1999, according to the original newspaper article, my family were anything but good refugees. We had entered the country deceitfully and “demanded” asylum from Immigration NZ after “jet-setting around Asia”.

My somewhat successful academic pursuits, now juxtaposed with the less-than-ideal method of our arrival, shifted the narrative from the deceitful refugee to the deserving refugee.

In contrast, the later article published after I had entered a highly-exclusive programme of study, did not portray my family as so-called “scammers”. Instead, it attempted to explain the life-threatening circumstances in which my parents had found themselves. Afghanistan had erupted into civil war and my parents’ home was quite literally caught in the crossfire. On the day my brother was born, a rocket-propelled grenade landed in our living room, narrowly missing my mother and newborn brother, who had come home just hours prior from a crumbling hospital that too had been struck.

My somewhat successful academic pursuits, now juxtaposed with the less-than-ideal method of our arrival, shifted the narrative from the deceitful refugee to the deserving refugee. However, neither are helpful and, in fact, the latter is equally as problematic as the former.

Capturing my success for the country to see continues to propagate the underlying sentiment that as refugees we must meet a series of criteria before we can be granted acceptance by mainstream New Zealand. Our mere humanity does not render us deserving of this basic human right. In my case, excelling academically and giving back to the country placed me above this threshold. I was now deserving, and the risk Immigration NZ had taken 20 years ago to grant me asylum has finally paid off.

Has the country’s perception of refugees changed so drastically over the past 20 years or is there something else that led to this extreme shift in narrative?

While I unequivocally believe the sharing of these success stories is vitally important, most former refugees, and in fact the majority of New Zealanders, do not go on to achieve these levels of relative success. For former refugees, however, the consequences of not meeting these expectations is dire because our acceptance is conditional on the social, cultural and most importantly, economic contributions we make to the country. Should we fall short of succeeding at these levels, we risk being deemed undeserving.

These undeserving refugees include my parents. The people who sacrificed their own careers and unlimited potential in order to provide my siblings and me with the opportunity to achieve. They are the people who do not get the feel-good articles written about them. For the remainder of their lives they live knowing that the only time they made the front page of any publication was when they were labelled so-called immigration scammers.

They, and numerous others like them, are placed into the category of the undeserving refugee because they work low-waged jobs, don’t speak English with an impeccable New Zealand accent, and have not studied at tertiary level in Aotearoa. And it is through the capturing of my success that mainstream New Zealand applauds itself on its generosity and pats itself on the back that refugees continue to be placed there. Our stories are weaponised against us to demonstrate what refugees should achieve, rather than illustrate what we can achieve.

Educational institutions, government, and media should continue to highlight the success of former refugees, and all minorities for that matter. However, ensuring an equal, if not greater, effort is made to address the structural barriers that prevent more people from achieving their potential is imperative. Whether that is through the university expanding its scholarships for refugee-background students to extend beyond the first year of study for a mere three undergraduate students per year, or the current Government abolishing its policy that denies refuge to people from the Middle East and Africa, change is desperately needed.

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