Last month New Zealand began hosting not just the Rugby World Cup but also the Pacific Island Forum Leaders’ Meeting. This was an affirmation that the Pacific Islands are our neighbours.
I was born in Africa, where my parents worked. I then worked for many years in Bangladesh. That meant I’ve had very little to do with the Pacific nations. That situation has been changing, however.
It began in 2009 with BANZAid’s project to rebuild the Satitoa Village primary school following the tsunami in Samoa. Working with people like Pastor Fa’aso Auva’a, Pastor Chris Sola and Ben Taufua I quickly learned to appreciate Fa’a Samoa – the Samoan way. The school was built as a community project and was a great success.
This year I’ve had the opportunity to travel to more of the Polynesian islands. One thing that’s clear is that the issues in the Pacific are very different to the issues in Africa or Asia.
For instance, there are no refugee camps or starving children. The islands are very Christian, with no shortage of churches. Everyone has family or relations in other parts of the world – in fact, for some there are more of their people living overseas than at home. And, there are few opportunities for work. Like many rural areas of New Zealand, there are no jobs for the young people and so they must leave home.
We have big Polynesian populations in New Zealand and we see them very literally as our neighbours, not out in the Pacific but just down the road. We want to see them have a similar standard of living to our own.
Our Government’s approach has two parts to it. One is to promote tourism as a way of bringing money to the islands: Go and visit – it’s probably the cheapest overseas holiday you can have. You’ll be welcomed, and treated as part of the family.
The second way of helping has been the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme. This allows temporary work visas for people from the Pacific to work in New Zealand at seasonal jobs like fruit picking. It’s a win-win situation – we get the seasonal workers, and they get to take money back to their communities.
Some of our churches have been involved providing pastoral and support services for the workers. This has been appreciated by the workers and has also brought a richness to the church.
• Paul Thompson is Team Leader of BANZAid, one of the four mission entities of the New Zealand Baptist Mission Society. Visit www.banzaid.co.nz.