Support group celebrating 30 years

Support stalwarts . . . Refugee Support Group (Dunedin) members (from left) Dyna Seng, Anne Devereux and Barbara Johnston are planning a celebration next month to mark the 30th anniversary of the organisation. PHOTO: BRENDA HARWOOD

A three-decade commitment to supporting refugees in the city will be marked next month, as the Refugee Support Group (Dunedin) celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Founded in 1989 to provide a support network for refugees settling in Dunedin – specifically about 1000 Cambodian and 100 Vietnamese people at that time – the voluntary organisation continues to provide culturally-appropriate support to newcomers in the city.

Group stalwarts and co-ordinators Anne Devereux, Barbara Johnston and Dyna Seng, have all been involved in the Refugee Support Group (Dunedin) since its earliest days.

Ms Devereux said when the Refugee Support Group (Dunedin) was formed in 1989, there was an established official refugee and migrant service in the city. But that ended about two years later.

“Suddenly, as a group of volunteers, we were left to pick up all of the refugees coming into the city.

“So, we were a very large organisation, with financial, educational and health subcommittees to deal with all of the various needs of the refugees.”

Ms Johnston said the volunteer-run service worked through the involvement of more than 80 “sponsors” – including community and church groups, schools, landlords, service clubs and student groups.

The sponsor groups would source housing, furnishings, clothing and other items for refugee families, and would welcome them to the community when they arrived in Dunedin.

“People went out of their way to help.”

Their efforts were co-ordinated by the Refugee Support Group (Dunedin) and the local branch of the International Church Commission on Immigration, led by the Reverend Donald Phillipps.

The refugees were supported with interpreting, language and cultural programmes, financial support, parenting support, public health, dental care, classes on transport, religious support, and more.

A full-time Cambodian community worker and a part-time bilingual teacher were appointed.

The group also worked to help raise awareness among the Dunedin community, to ensure residents dealt with the newcomers appropriately.

“There was also a lot of support needed for school teachers, to help with language maintenance for the children, and encouraging families to send their children to school,” Ms Johnston said.

Mr Seng, who recently retired from a position as a lecturer in accountancy at Otago university, arrived in Dunedin as a young refugee from Cambodia in 1981.

He recalls the communication issues experienced by new arrivals, but also the growing confidence and opportunities for those able to liaise between the two communities.

“And the achievements of the next generation have been wonderful to see – many have gone on to university and have graduated with degrees in subjects like law, pharmacy, and surveying,” Mr Seng said.

Of the original Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees who came to Dunedin, an estimated 25 to 30 families remain in the city, while others have relocated to other parts of New Zealand or have taken up opportunities overseas.

As a result, some have become more isolated and in need of ongoing support, which the Refugee Support Group (Dunedin) works to provide.

Over the years, the group has supported refugees from a range of other countries, including Iran, Poland, Russia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The planned Refugee Support Group (Dunedin) 30th anniversary celebrations will focus on a community dinner, to be held at the Nanking Palace Restaurant in South Dunedin on Wednesday, September 11.

The group is keen to involve former committee members, home tutors, teachers, trustees, sponsor groups, advisers, and members of the former refugee community.

Rev Donald Phillipps will be MC, Colin Gibson will speak on behalf of the sponsors, and Mr Seng will speak on behalf of the Cambodian community.

Please RSVP by September 4, by phoning Dyna Seng on 21182-4199, or Anne Devereux on 474-0127.