Driving home, Ann Beaglehole

Migrant Journeys: New Zealand Taxi Drivers tell their Stories
Adrienne Jansen and Liz Grant (Michael Hall photographer)
Bridget Williams Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9781927277331

In Adrienne Jansen’s 1990 book I Have in My Arms Both Ways, 10 immigrant women told their migrant journey story. The same formula works well in Migrant Journeys, Jansen’s latest book, with Liz Grant (photos by Michael Hall), in which 14 immigrant taxi drivers tell their stories. The drivers come alive as individuals, and readers gain an overview of the main issues involved in refugee and migrant settlement as perceived by the interviewees.

Except for two women, the taxi drivers are men. The stories show their courage, stoicism and hard work ethic above all. They are from Afghanistan, India, Fiji, Somalia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Bangladesh, Samoa and Iraq. They have come since the 1990s, some as refugees, others as immigrants selected under the points system for their skills and qualifications. There are Christians, Hindu and Muslims among them. One is Sikh.

Though there is not always a hard and fast line between the experiences of refugees and those of immigrants, I’m not convinced that the two types of migrant journeys (forced migration as opposed to people with some choices shifting countries for a better life) fit well together. The most compelling accounts in the book show the powerlessness of refugees, forced to escape in the face of oppression, and their efforts to rebuild shattered lives. One refugee wrote of doing three jobs and studying at the same time.

Some were driven to leave home by concern for their children’s future. A refugee from Iraq said: “I am looking at my son. He will be something here, because he will grow up here. But for us, no. I can do many many things but I can’t get a real job.” Many of the drivers struggle to overcome this conundrum: you can’t get work without Kiwi experience; how can you get Kiwi work experience without the opportunity to work? When we came as refugees from Hungary in the 1950s, newcomers got off the boat in the morning and by the afternoon they had job offers – even when they didn’t know any English. How different now! Work, especially decent work, is tough to come by – for various reasons: because we are a small market, and because of prejudice. There are several accounts of the racism encountered, much of it under cover, or of the polite variety: you don’t get the job you are best qualified for, you get a polite letter instead. Some drivers are bitter about not being able to use previous qualifications, others resigned. Several are reluctantly planning to leave for Australia. One writes: “I love this country but I can’t find the chances.”

Taxi driving is a hard, competitive business, requiring specialist skills (business acumen and good communication skills among others). Some of the drivers have been driving for more than 20 years, others for a shorter time. There are good and bad aspects to it. The good is the freedom and flexibility to be your own boss and work when you please (or when it fits with family life). The bad is the drunk customers who don’t pay, who attack you and subject you to racial abuse. Yet some remain positive about the job.

Those who like to ask anyone who sounds or looks different “Where are you from?”, “How long have you been here?”, or “Do you like New Zealand?” should not expect that their questions are always welcome (though sometimes they are). One taxi driver (from the former Yugoslavia) has been thinking about “printing out the answers” because “many people are not interested at all – they are just asking for the sake of conversation. But it would be a bit rude.”

Some observations resonated in particular. One driver said: “People here don’t always realise it, but they’re very lucky.” Another said: “Kiwi kids should be shown difficulties faced by people in other countries. Then they would appreciate what they have got here. People complain about very minor things, without realising what people in other countries are going through.”

There are good initiatives happening now on the work-front, though probably too late to help these taxi drivers. Job frustrations aside, the book gives a reassuringly rosy picture of some of New Zealand’s immigrants. This is no bad thing, given the intense debate overseas about immigration and calls on the government here to double the refugee quota.

Ann Beaglehole’s book Refuge New Zealand: A Nation’s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers was published by Otago University Press in 2013. A review from our Autumn 2014 issue can be found in our online archive: nzbooks.org/archive/.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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