Migrant and international student perspectives on Covid-19 in Aotearoa

Migrant and international student perspectives on Covid-19 in Aotearoa

In February we ran a workshop focussing on the Covid-19 experiences of people from international student and migrant backgrounds (including partners and family members), co-facilitated by researcher Sarah Jane D. Lipura. Here, Curator Asian New Zealand Histories Dr Grace Gassin shares insights from the kōrero.

If there is one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that we all fare best when our judgements derive from insights drawn from all parts of our society – this is why at Te Papa we’re currently bringing together a diverse range of people to lead our discussions on important pandemic-related issues through our Making Histories project.

In February, Sarah and I had the privilege of holding a workshop with ten participants – all from international student or migrant backgrounds, all with unique transnational connections, cultural heritages, and perspectives on New Zealand and the pandemic to share.

Over an afternoon filled with lots of kai and conversation, we asked participants some serious questions: What has the pandemic been like for you? What pandemic-related issues deserve more attention at the national level? What part can public institutions play in creating a better future for us all?

Below, we’ve distilled some ‘take home’ points and recommendations from our discussions.

Empty streets at the entrance to the Terrace Tunnel in Wellington
State Highway 1 during lockdown, 26 March 2020, Wellington, by Maarten Holl. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (CA001237/001/0011)

We can all do more to recognise migrants and international students’ contributions to our Covid-19 response and as members of our society

Our participants were engaged in all kinds of community assistance work during the pandemic. Some performed vital roles as essential workers, others provided timely translations of pandemic-related information in their own languages, offered mental health support to friends in New Zealand isolated from family overseas and provided practical assistance for those in need (see Chequil’s story below).

My amazing co-facilitator, Sarah, herself an international PhD candidate from the Philippines, also conducted research on the pandemic experiences of Auckland migrants for Belong Aotearoa.

It is my view that these heroes remain largely unsung because their work often contributes to services so essential that we tend to take them for granted. Their voluntary labour also helps fill gaps in our support systems so basic that many of us assume that they are already supported through funding.

Fortunately, each of us can take it upon ourselves to learn more about the experiences and voices of people from ethnic migrant and international student backgrounds during Covid-19. Whether you are yourself an international student or migrant, or someone curious to learn more, we’ve put together a list of resources at the bottom of this blog to help get you started.

We are all going through this pandemic together

From dismay at panic-buying to the eery silence of lockdown, many of the topics discussed readily by participants would not have been out of place anywhere in New Zealand. Take, for instance, Farasat’s reflections on living in the city during lockdown:

When you go down [the road] – because everything in the city, no bus, nobody on the road – it’s just pin drop silence. The signal from my house was four blocks away and I can listen the signal of crossing people and there is no-one. I was surprised this much silence, it’s never happened.

… or Naning’s reflections on the trials of juggling work, schooling, and child-rearing during the various level changes:

I’m a mum, a PhD student, a wife [and was] a private teacher for my children – during the lockdown especially. As a PhD student, I had to keep my productivity level … but [I] still struggle with the time management. I have to work, like, until midnight sometimes, until 2 o’clock or something like that. And some, you know, helping my children as well. Doing the housework … time management is the biggest challenge for me.

Many of us also reflected on the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic, which continues to bind the community together. Indeed, just two hours after our meeting, the Prime Minister announced Auckland would be going into Level 3 lockdown for three days. After an afternoon spent reflecting on how lucky we all were to be able to meet together, the announcement definitely made us feel as though we really were part of a collective history-in-the-making.

The words ‘NZ stand together 2m apart’ in white on a grey wall
Covid-19 graffiti, Glenmore St, Thorndon, Wellington, 7 April 2020, Wellington, by Maarten Holl. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (CA001237/001/0012)

Many of our pandemic experiences are intimately connected to events overseas, border closures notwithstanding

For many participants with families, friends and communities overseas, the pandemic raging overseas has been, and remains, as relevant to their lives as events happening locally.

During last year’s nationwide lockdown, participant Chequil’s grandparents died in the Philippines but, due to the border closures, she wasn’t able to return to see them. She also comforted a dying friend in the Philippines via video call.

Despite these tragic events, Chequil stepped up as a key support figure for people in her networks with links to the Philippines. She supported friends here and overseas battling depression and, on one occasion, helped the parent and sister of a dying man to apply for a humanitarian visa from the Philippines. When he passed away during the application process, she offered to help the family arrange a local funeral for him.

Another participant, Naning, spoke of international students she knew overseas who had already paid fees for courses in New Zealand but were stuck outside the country. ‘It can[’t] be easily calculated in money, you know, time, energy, and it can affect their emotional wellbeing as well. I think mental counselling will be needed,” she says.

For both women, it was important to be at the workshop not only to share their own experiences, but those of others.

Understanding the increasing diversity of Aotearoa and the perspectives of all who live here also means recognising that our lives are intimately intertwined with people, events and developments happening around the world. Even at an institution like Te Papa where our remit is ‘national’, therefore, our perspective needs to be global.

Mural painted onto a garage of the Palestinian flag with a cityscape painted over top and the words ‘Livin in lockdown’
Mural during lockdown, 2020. Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa (155731)

Community-centred, culturally safe avenues for people to reflect on the pandemic together are valuable

It was apparent throughout the workshop that everyone really valued the opportunity to meet together. Many explicitly told us that they had come for the opportunity to connect with others from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds and reflect on their unique experiences of the pandemic:

What made me participant in the workshop is that I want to learn from other people as well. Are they experiencing what I’m experiencing, and what is their reaction? Definitely it, you can’t control this situation, but you can control how you react to it, so I want to learn.
– Veronica, partner of international student

Just the idea that we can be here with lots of people from different backgrounds, but we all share the same story … even though we’re different, we all have that same commonality, which is that we’re all here from other places.
– Anica, 1.5 generation migrant

It is a mark of the workshop’s success that, in each other’s company, many felt comfortable enough to discuss difficult topics such as racism and allow them to be recorded.

One participant, who first came to New Zealand as a teenager, spoke of her own many and varied experiences of anti-Asian racism and discrimination, including being refused service at a hardware store last year when she walked into the foyer wearing a mask. She expressed frustration at hearing repeatedly that ‘this is not us’ in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Another participant expressed feeling some initial confusion when Covid social distancing measures were introduced which mirrored some common anti-Black avoidance behaviours.

With the support of the group, some participants also expressed feelings of a ‘silence’ in New Zealand around certain forms of racism, directed particularly towards people perceived as foreign. One participant, partner of an international student, noted that many of the government’s messages to the public were directed explicitly to ‘New Zealanders’ and wondered, ‘I’m not from here, so am I included in that?’

Clearly, we all have a responsibility to tackle confronting issues such as racism and discrimination. While we do so, we also need to expand the spaces available for people from culturally and ethnically minoritised groups to connect with others from whom they can expect empathy, understanding and support.

Close up on a digital sign on the sie of a building. The sign is displaying a poster of a hand-drawn rainbow, with the words ‘Essential service workers we thank you’
Courtenay Place during lockdown, 1 April 2020. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa (153923)

Having a voice matters

When asked why she attended the workshop, participant Taritha replied that it was because she was informed: ‘it is a place where you will have a voice’:

I think that when you listen to others’ stories, it makes [for] a difference narrative, a different way of being recognised. So I think listen to the stories is very important and they need to be told.

For all participants in attendance, this was the first time that they had heard of a major memory institution (such as a museum) pro-actively reaching out to people in their communities and inviting them to inform the nature of its collecting. Yet they have always been ready and willing to contribute. And their stories do indeed need, and deserve, to be told.

In the coming weeks, we will share updates on how we intend to respond to some of these recommendations alongside others which will emerge from planned future workshops. Watch this space.

Further reading

Below is a brief list of articles and resources which highlight the experiences and voices of people from ethnic migrant and international student backgrounds during Covid-19.



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