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Former Colombian refugee family, now Invercargill residents Jose Quinchoa, Maria Jojoa, Camilo (21), Nidia (17) and her daughter Salome. Photo: Petrina Wright

What It’s Like to be Me

This is a series shining a light on people living and working in Southland. This week reporter PETRINA WRIGHT found out what it is like to be the Quinchoa-Jojoa family, Colombian refugees who have made Invercargill their home.

ALOT can happen in a year.

And, what a year it has been for former Colombian refugees Jose Quinchoa and Maria Jojoa and their family.

They have relocated to a country foreign to them in every way, set up house, begun learning a second language, secured new jobs, been reunited with their son after months of being apart and welcomed their first New Zealand-born grandchild into the world.

That’s a lot for anyone to deal with, let alone someone who has been forced to leave their homeland under difficult circumstances.

With help from New Zealand Red Cross, Invercargill interpreter Maria Hance, I met with the family to find out how they have been adjusting to life in New Zealand.

Husband and wife Jose, Maria and their daughter Nidia (17) moved to Invercargill on May 19 last year. Their son Camilo joined them in May this year.

They had no preconceived ideas about New Zealand prior to their arrival in the country. In fact, they had not known anything about New Zealand other than what they had been shown on a video while in Ecuador awaiting resettlement, they said.

Maria said nothing had been easy about settling in New Zealand.

“[But] I feel quite comfortable and I feel quite blessed. People are very kind.”

The most difficult part about settling in was the language barrier, they said.

“To us and our age, it is very difficult to learn the language, but not impossible,” Jose said.

They were taking English language classes, but still needed assistance from an interpreter.

“So we have to use very short sentences,” Maria said.

They had also struggled to adjust to the cold weather after coming from the tropical climate of Colombia, she said.

“The first year was very hard for us because our home town is hot, 30degC or higher.”

Despite the cold, the family said they were enjoying experiencing seasons for the first time.

Nidia and Camilo said the people of New Zealand were very different from Colombians.

“[New Zealanders] are more polite, more kind, more honest and more quietly spoken,” Camilo said.

The family was among the first group of refugees to relocate to Invercargill, and Jose was proud to say he was the first to secure employment.

Jose had got a job working for J & L Building Ltd building garages and Maria was working as a cleaner in a rest-home.

Jose said he had been a builder in Colombia so he was enjoying the work.

Nidia was studying at the Murihiku Young Parents Learning Centre.

Nidia (17) and her daughter Salome.

Nidia said on leaving school she wanted to pursue a career in tourism or as a civil engineer.

Camilo, having arrived in May, was still taking English language classes and adjusting to life in New Zealand.

He had worked in photography and publicity in Colombia and would like to get a similar job here, perhaps in television, he said.

With the language barrier still an issue, the family had not joined any clubs or community groups yet, other than becoming members of their local church.

They said Southlanders had been welcoming and kind to them.

The family had not experienced any prejudice, but admitted they wouldn’t know if they had because they did not understand what was being said.

The Quinchoa-Jojoa family are among millions of civilian Colombians who have been displaced over the past 50 years due to fighting between the Colombian government’s armed forces and guerrilla soldiers, paramilitaries and drug cartels.

The family had lived in the countryside outside Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo, near Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador.

They had extended family still living in Colombia they were concerned about and one son (20) in Ecuador awaiting resettlement whom they hoped would join them in the future.

As their son in Ecuador had a wife and child, they were no longer considered part of Quinchoa-Jojoa’s family, so bringing them to New Zealand was proving more difficult, they said.

They did not wish to discuss the circumstances which forced them to become refugees other than to say it was because of violence.

Aside from the sun and their family, food was the only thing they missed from their homeland, they said.

Jose Quinchoa and Maria Jojoa.

Looking to their future in New Zealand, Maria said she hoped her children would find good jobs and feel secure and relaxed without any tension.

“I feel relaxed now, but it was difficult when Camilo was away. All the feelings of anguish with him away, but now he is here, it is okay.”

Jose said his first priority was to ensure his children attended university, something they would not have had the opportunity to do in Colombia.

The birth of Nidia’s daughter Salome in February, the first New Zealand-born member of the Quinchoa-Jojoa family, perfectly symbolises of the beginning of their new lives as New Zealanders, and I hope will go some way to helping them cement their roots in their adopted homeland.

The final words belong to Jose –

“To all Colombians here, that they relax and not worry because New Zealand people are very good.

“To the people of Invercargill I want to thank to give us a hand and give us an opportunity. Thank you all the beautiful people of Invercargill.”

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