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Challenge...The number of refugees coming to Timaru will stretch the community Mark Pavelka says, but signs were it was being well organised. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN .

by Chris Tobin

Timaru Baptist pastor Mark Pavelka says those working to help the resettlement of Syrian families into Timaru have already covered a lot of bases.

“I went to the recent public meeting and they have set up key people for housing and voluntary services. We’ll be just coming alongside standing shoulder to shoulder [to help].

Mr Pavelka’s church supported a Syrian refugee family settling in Timaru in 2018.

Late next month a Syrian family of eight will arrive in Timaru after spending time at the refugee resettlement centre in Mangere. Thereafter, one or two refugee families would be arriving in Timaru every six weeks, to a maximum number of 110 people per year for two years.

The programme was being run locally by Presbyterian Support South Canterbury.

Mr Pavelka’s church was part of a pilot scheme, the Community Organisation Refugee Sponsorship Category (Cors), which was as an alternative form of admission for up to 25 refugees in 2017-18.

They supported a couple, Mohammed Al Qattan and Hayat Shawish, and their 9-month-old son Zuheir Al Qattan, which had proved successful

He was keen to learn what the future was for the Cors scheme after the government increased the annual refugee quota from July this year to 1500 places, with the intention of settling refugees in provincial areas.

Mr Pavelka, the new chairman of the Timaru Christian Ministers Association, said this move was to take advantage of opportunities in the provinces and to relieve large enclaves in the cities.

“Things can be more supportive in smaller communities. One concern is if they get overloaded more than they can cope with. Then it can become negative for newcomers.

“The numbers will stretch us but it is being well organised and with the support of government, I think we can cope.”

The young Syrian family Mr Pavelka’s church supported thought at first they would be going to England. They didn’t know where New Zealand was. After six weeks at Mangere they came to Timaru.

“Hayat had good English while Mohammed’s English was at about a tourist level.”

Their language skills improved after attending classes at Ara, Mr Pavelka said, although there were challenges. The first trip to the supermarket took three hours as they checked to see if any of the food was halal-friendly.

“Housing was a challenge, as well. They had a house when they arrived and moved into another one. The housing market here is quite hot and to find a unit you had to be quick.”

He said social media allowed them to keep in contact with their family overseas.

“That was positive. Hayat had been studying in Damascus with bombings going on, her family moved to Jordan.

“Mohammed was at an age to get drafted, so he left for Lebanon where he found it hard to get work. He moved to Jordan and got a job as a teller-cashier.”

That job ended when Jordan moved to employ national citizens, not immigrants.

The family had 10 to 12 people supporting them in Timaru

Apart from one or two negative experiences, Mr Pavelka said the family’s period in Timaru was “very positive” and people would often greet them in the street.

At the time of the mosque shootings they went to Christchurch to friends who were affected and drove back to Timaru.

“When they arrived back in Timaru, Hayat said they saw the sign and it felt so good to be back. This was only six months after their arrival.”

The family has since shifted to Christchurch where they have received further support from the Cors scheme.

“Mohammed worked at Pareora [meat works]. He had a shoulder injury and couldn’t continue. He looked for work in a halal restaurant but couldn’t find a position here.”

The Timaru Christian Ministers Association was calling for volunteers from the various churches to help the incoming refugees. The target was 100 people.

He said the Christian and Muslim communities in Timaru got on and related well.

“It’s about trust and relationship-building and we have to do a lot of listening. When Mohammed was here I went cycling with him most Sunday afternoons and we’d have a chat for an hour.

“It was a way of building understanding.”