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Why I am strong: A young refugee’s perilous escape to NZ

Wednesday 14th June 2017

Yibeth Morales Ayala will tell the Immigration Minister the current intake quota isn’t enough.

Yibeth Morales Ayala.

Yibeth Morales Ayala.

Photo: Gareth White

She remembers her grandma waving goodbye. She suspected something was wrong, but may be that’s an effect of time.

Yibeth Morales Ayala’s grandma’s body was found by a farmer, riddled with bullets. At the funeral, her mother pounded the coffin asking the heavens, “Why, why, why?”

She remembers being lifted up by her grandfather so she could look at the body.

A month later, her grandfather disappeared. Kidnapped and murdered, most likely. She doesn’t know for sure.

She remembers her mother desperately asking people in the village if they’d seen him, holding an old photo up to their faces.

Her mother approached the local paramilitary. “Don’t waste your time looking for something that’s already gone,” she was told.

Soldiers came to her home. “Leave now or be killed,” one barked. She didn’t know why. Her family drove to the only place they could escape, the San Miguel Bridge. Nearby, what was once rich native forest has been cleared by oil companies. Tourists are told to avoid the area.

After sweet-talking some border guards, her father led her family to the foot of the bridge. “Run”, he told them. She remembers him grabbing her hand and pulling her so quickly her feet barely touched the pavement. At 3pm on a Tuesday in September, 2003, they crossed into Ecuador.

“We’re safe,” he said, once they reached the other side. She was three.

Yibeth's grandparents.
Both of Yibeth's grandparents are suspected to have been killed by Colombian para-militants.

Photo: Supplied

Yibeth will today give a speech before Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, the UN Refugee Agency’s local representative and other Government officials at event marking next Tuesday’s World Refugee Day. New Zealand Red Cross is hosting.

“My relationship with this country is complicated,” she says in thick Latin American Spanish. “I love it, but I am also struggling. Knowing I still have close family members suffering in Ecuador hurts.”

Yibeth, her parents and younger sister were granted refugee status in New Zealand three-and-a-half years ago. Her older sister remains in Ecuador. Yibeth is now 17 and lives in Wellington.

“My family and I will always be grateful to New Zealand for giving us a new life. We love so much about this country and in some ways it saved us, but we know we weren’t born here and didn’t have the same opportunities as others.”

She will tell Woodhouse the current refugee intake quota of 750 (which will rise to 1000 next year) isn’t enough.

“Some people look at refugees and think they have come to their country to take their jobs and take their money. For so many, this is a matter of living or dying. Housing is obviously a big problem here and we can’t receive as many people as we should, but I still think we should take more.”

She has complicated feelings towards the system that brought her here. “It can be too selective in terms of how refugees are chosen. There are families that are split up when only a few are able to come. I also knew many, many families that needed to leave far more than us.”

Her parents struggle to speak English and have trouble finding work. She wants them to have more support.

Yibeth's family.
Yibeth's family.

Photo: Gareth White

Yibeth is also one of four refugee women featured in a new interactive documentary series,  “Together we make a nation”, funded by NZ On Air and supported by Red Cross. The project was developed by companies Story Inc and Rabid Technologies.

The women tell why they left their former countries and describe their new lives. Also featured is Ola from Poland, Neary from Cambodia and Dalal from Syria.

“Our message is that former refugee women are so resilient and strong. They are brave and resourceful and have so much to offer our communities - a direct contrast to the inaccuracies being portrayed in the international media,” says Sandra Clark, one of the project’s managers.

Yibeth’s resilience is clear. Her main worry is supporting her family. That goes beyond money. If her parents want to go out, Yibeth must too, to translate.

“I feel older than I am because of my experiences. The other girls at my school want to do teenage stuff, I’m thinking about working and providing for my family,” she says.

Yibeth is a Cadet and plans to either continue in the Defence Force or join the police. ”My past experience of military people is them having so much power and using it in the wrong way by killing people. I joined the Defence Force to have a similar power but to use it to save people.”

She is drawn to the discipline of the Cadet Forces. “I love doing things the right way and I love rules. Rules keep people organised.”

Yibeth Morales Ayala.
Yibeth Morales Ayala.

Photo: Gareth White

Yibeth also co-hosts a youth show on Wellington Access Radio and plays music from around the world. “I can say things and people will listen despite what I look like.”

Radio is a dream she hopes continues.

Although a part of her wants to drop out of school and the Cadets to work, she feels she owes more to her adopted country.

“There are so many more possibilities here than in other countries. I have to hold on to the thought that I must make the best of it here.”

Yet Yibeth will always feel like a refugee.

“This is not where I was born, I don’t belong anywhere. I feel very different to everyone here, my emotions, how I look, how I speak and how I act. I can be vulnerable at times, but I feel stronger because of what I’ve been through.”



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Max is a journalist who has worked for The Star, Bleacher Report and RNZ News.
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