Iraqi refugee believes small towns can do job

Mostafa Alwash (24) moves like a Kiwi, speaks like a Kiwi, but has that undeniable suggestion of otherness - a past beyond the bucolic islands of North and South. ''I don't remember the journey to New Zealand but it has been told to me, even enforced to me; remember where you came from, see where you are now.'' 

Mr Alwash is an Iraqi refugee who emigrated to New Zealand in 1997. 

His family of seven were lucky in that both his parents were skilled (his father a doctor, his mother a pharmacist), but the experience of travelling more than 15,000km from a country torn apart by war, and spending 70 days in a refugee camp where the average meal consisted of a boiled potato with salt, was traumatic. 

''One of the worst things about being a refugee is that feeling of helplessness. You are put into a box and people tell you to wait and wait. And it takes away from your humanity.'' Mr Alwash is currently studying for a PhD in information science, focusing on Twitter and its ability to influence public opinion. 

He is undecided on his future career path but becoming an academic is one option. ''I've been in Dunedin for seven years now, studying, and it's a very comfortable environment for me. A lot of people here are very liberal and progressive.'' 

Earlier last week, Mr Alwash took part in a panel discussion at Otago University, discussing New Zealand's response to the Syrian refugee crisis and how many refugees should be accepted. Mr Alwash feels strongly that New Zealand is not doing enough. 

He thinks settling refugees in more regional and remote areas should be explored, as his own family found the communities of Whakatane and Wanganui easier to adapt too than the sprawling and somewhat intimidating metropolis of Auckland. '' Refugees tend to be steered away from rural areas because people think they will be isolated and I think that's a bad idea. 

People are very understanding and tolerant in small towns and it forces you to learn the language. At the end of the day, all a refugee wants is a safe place to raise their young.'' Although Mr Alwash does not have an ''ideal'' number of refugees in mind that New Zealand should take, he does think the community's ability to resettle them should be taken into account. 

''I would like a discussion on how many the community can support, rather than the government administering some ad hoc number. We've seen such an outcry on social media with people offering their homes to refugees and the government seems to be passing this movement by.''  

by Eleanor Ainge Roy

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