Refugees and New Zealand compassion, Verica Rupar

Refuge New Zealand: A Nation‘s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Ann Beaglehole
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877578502

Andris, Where are You? From Latvia to New Zealand: The Family Story of Andris Apse
Ron Crosby
Craig Potton Publishing, $40.00,
ISBN 9781877517976

When persecution, violence and war force people to flee their homes, they become people in need, refugees, not a threat to someone’s way of life. Unlike those of immigrants, who make a conscious decision to leave the homeland, refugees’ experiences of uprooting and homelessness are sudden, painful and with no way back. In 2013, more than 10 million women, children and men were registered as refugees. The latest big group is that of 78,000 South Sudanese citizens, who crossed the border and are now in neighbouring Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, waiting for a place to start a new life.

Some of these refugees might come to New Zealand. An annual refugee quota – an ugly administrative term that determines numbers of people coming to the country through the UN Refugee Agency system – says up to 750 refugees will be accepted in 2014. This figure may seem small, but, in comparison to other refugee resettlement countries, it is relatively high. Giving shelter to refugees shows compassion and humanity, deeply ingrained in the national ethos. New Zealand is the fifth most welcoming country when it comes to the number of accepted and settled refugees. Throughout history, policies and attitudes have changed, but the overall readiness to help victims of wars and conflicts has remained the same.

Historian, writer and policy analyst Ann Beaglehole’s examination of New Zealand’s response to refugees in Refuge New Zealand: A Nation’s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers reveals both humanitarian and pragmatic threads in the welcoming blanket. The last paragraph of her outstanding book is titled “A fine record?”. The question mark stands for the argument that, while a humanitarian impulse has underpinned policies, empathy was always accompanied by clear economic, social and political considerations.

Beaglehole combines her previous research on displacement with new data taken from evaluations of policies and attitudes, as well as from the life stories and experiences of refugees themselves. For some, New Zealand provided a heaven: in 1959, the country opened a door to refugees with disabilities, an outstanding gesture at the time and an example for other countries to follow. What makes New Zealand’s refugee policy unique is the fact that it has relied on sponsorship and volunteers to support the settling process. A neighbour bringing a jar of jam to your door, a colleague bringing his old computer to your place, a colleague offering a ride to the countryside – for all of us who came to New Zealand to stay away from war, violence and oppression, this is a country in which to breathe freely.

A pause here: for all of us, or just for the refugees with white skin, coming from approved countries and arriving at the right moment? Beaglehole offers intriguing answers. Until the mid-1980s, New Zealand did not have policies and structures to respond to large numbers of culturally diverse refugees. Preference was given to “people like us” (ie British) and not to Asians, Jews, Africans, Muslims – depending on the historical, political and economic circumstances of the time.

William Massey, prime minister 1912-1925, responding to the question why Chinese people were not able to come to New Zealand, said that it was “the result of a deep seated sentiment on the part of the large majority of the people of this country that this Dominion shall be what is often called a ‘white’ New Zealand”. An unpleasant part of New Zealand history includes a whole set of measures put in place in the 1930s that made it difficult for Jews – fleeing Nazi Germany – to come here: “Non-Jewish applicants are regarded as a more suitable type of immigrant”, “There is a major difficulty of absorbing these people in our cultural life without raising a feeling of antipathy to them,” officials were saying in 1935. More to come: intellectuals and professional people were definitely not wanted after WWII, neither were people from Asia for almost a century.

Beaglehole’s book does not shy away from giving a comprehensive historical account. The text reflects the precision of a historian, the sharpness of a policy analyst, and the perceptiveness of a writer. She makes it clear that, behind the statistics, policies and rhetoric on refugees, are real people, people like her own family. One night in December 1956, they fled Hungary knowing that the future was just one big question mark.

More than 30,000 people came to New Zealand as refugees after WWII. They experienced the trauma of leaving, the anxiety of waiting for the settlement decision to be made, and the stress of adjusting to life in a new country. The family story of the New Zealand landscape photographer Andris Apse, who came with his mother Kamilla to New Zealand in 1949, is one such a story. Written by Ron Crosby, Andris, Where are You? From Latvia to New Zealand: The Family Story of Andris Apse, is based on the pre-war diaries of Andris’s father, Voldemars, the correspondence between Voldemars and Kamilla, and interviews with all of them. The story starts in Latvia between the two world wars. A small country on the Baltic Sea in northern Europe, exposed to Russia (the Soviet Union at that time) from the East and to Germany from the West, Latvia easily became a victim of historical turmoil. Voldemars joined the army when Latvia was an independent state. When the Russians invaded in 1940, his unit joined the soon-to-be-defeated Red Army. He was discharged after the invasion and joined the German military forces.

In one of the short breaks during the war, Voldemars married Kamilla, a girl he had met before the war. The longest period of time they spent together as a married couple was seven months. Kamilla became pregnant and gave birth to Andris; but it was wartime, and Voldemars was away, fighting under different commanding officers and uniforms, keeping a diary and writing to Kamilla whenever he could. In 1943, he writes:

My only happiness is you … My biggest worry is that I will have to leave and you will be left alone amongst strangers who will not be able to understand or be willing to help you. But there is nothing I can do about it.


At the end of the war, this Latvian man wore a German uniform and was immediately sent to a gulag. Kamilla and Andris were in southern Germany in a refugee camp. The stories about battles in Latvia and the fate of soldiers were frightening, and Kamilla feared the worst. After four years, her hopes had vanished, and she welcomed an offer to resettle in New Zealand.

The lives of books are like the lives of people. On page 50 of Beaglehole’s book, Andris appears. The Monthly Review of Employment, a journal published by the Department of Labour in 1949, describes a new group of European settlers: “People so courteous and intelligent, so well ordered, clean and quiet”, “ready to laugh and be jolly” and – here it comes ‒ “no one expected such lovely children”.

The story of Andris’s and Kamilla’s life in New Zealand is a dramatic one – a love affair, a failed marriage, more children, a love for photography, survival and resolution ‒ but the real miracle came in 1990. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the family discovered that Voldemars was still alive. They travelled to Latvia, Kamilla and Voldemars met, father met son, the correspondence continued …

Andris, where are you? tells a moving family drama set against volatile historical events. The text is slightly uneven with a slow first part, a simplification of historical events, some blind spots in the narrative. However, it is a powerful account of the family of one of the most prominent New Zealand photographers, whose iconic images of the landscape fill pages of journalism, are published in monographs and are equally enjoyed and praised here and overseas.

Apse was once asked if he felt a social responsibility to develop New Zealand national identity and culture through photography. He said: “I feel no social responsibility other than trying to show people what I consider to be beautiful and worthy of protecting in New Zealand.” The idea of what is “worthy of protecting in New Zealand” is underlined in both books. Beaglehole’s work reveals social and political processes behind displacement, and Crosby’s account of the Apse family’s separation and reunion shows us how fragile is a sense of an ending, once you leave the world you know.


Verica Rupar teaches in the School of Communications at Auckland University of Technology.


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