Celebration of an achievement

Originally posted on www.move2nz.com on 16th July 2009 this article is included here with a little updating on the anniversary of the IAA’s attack. 

Celebration of an achievement: move2nz’s Migrant Centre

Our Migrant Centre after providing completely free settlement support services to thousands of migrants was forced to close as a result of a government error in 2009. This article looks back to celebrate the amazing achievements of the Centre.

BeginningsBeginnings
Back in 2006 Tammy and I realised that although the move2nz.com website was helping a huge number of people prepare for migration there was a major hole in the process: once people arrived there was nothing. 

No services, no information, no support: nothing. 

There were excellent information packs from Immigration New Zealand, but only about 1% of people (with Residency) got them, usually after they were actually most useful. 

There was no support from any case-officer – only about 9% of migrants had any contact with the immigration service at all after they arrived and that was because the migrants called them up – and no help settling in. 

So what did people do? 

They struggled through. Some made it, some (about a quarter) didn’t. 

Making a difference
Something needed to be done, so Tammy and I decided to do it. As always we did it back-to-front:
“But we don’t have any money or funding!”
“We’ll work it out” 

So we went out, found a place and signed up for a lease with no money but a clear idea of what we needed to do. 

Lianne Dalziel opens the CentreOne of the people we met in those early days was Lianne Dalziel MP who became a pillar of support. As the Minister of Immigration back in 2001 when settlement support was actively discussed Lianne was the first person we spoke to who immediately understood what and why we were on this crusade. 

We opened the doors to our support centre on 26th September 2006 and started running regular events like coffee mornings. On 1st December 2006 we were delighted to welcome a huge number of people along to the Centre as Lianne Dalziel, then Minister for Commerce, officially opened New Zealand’s first and only full-time, independent and free walk-in centre dedicated to helping skilled migrant families. 

So what did the Centre do?
It provided a helping hand to migrants who needed help settling in to New Zealand in an informal and friendly way. Information was available to anyone wandering in on a whole range of aspects affecting migrants – although I hasten to confirm that we didn’t handle technical immigration issues, these were passed to the Immigration service or a shortlist of professionals. 

Instead we helped with everything else including the little things that can become big things: schooling and education, helping people find employment, understanding NZ housing, linking migrants together for support and information – which helped many access local kiwi networks rather than stay as expats. 

A large part of everyday work was helping people understand the differences in New Zealand. I think of it as social translation: what’s a similar food I can buy, what does this joke mean, why should I not say that, why is this piece of music so important. What is rugby??? 

These answers, coming from someone who has been through the transition and then lived in New Zealand long enough to be able to explain, can make a serious difference to feelings of vulnerability, homesickness and unhappiness. 

We offered office facilities for people who needed to work on their CVs or print them out, Internet access, regular events, Seminars with expert speakers on loads of stuff like the health and legal system. 

Basically we were there doing something to help people survive the rollercoaster of migration, to make it through the problems and choices people face in everyday life. 

Migration is so much bigger than the nuts and bolts of immigration and that’s what we did. We helped people settle and integrate into New Zealand society and I think we provided a useful service to Aotearoa. 

Making it work
We had put ourselves on the line: had it gone wrong we could have lost our house, so we made sure it didn’t go wrong. 

We needed to be able to provide help to people full-time and the income from our website was too low even for us to live on. So we worked like crazy to raise income not only for the running costs of the Centre, but also for a member of staff to help us. 

Everything we had went into making this succeed – it was a little strange working as an I.T. contractor during the day for weeks at a time to put my wages in to keep the Centre running but it was working and helping people. 

TV One filmingDay after day the word got out and more people came. Some came for little pieces of information they couldn’t get anywhere else, some to meet new people, some needed a shoulder to cry on, and some were in desperate need. 

Although the Centre had opening hours we did not. I clearly remember one late night phone call in the depths of winter from a South African electrician desperately worried about his wife and family still in SA. Tammy helped him make it through that Sunday night – he was ready to just get on a plane – and we met him weeks later to finding him smiling and happy. 

And that was all people really needed – a helping hand at the right time. Not charity, not handouts, just a friend when it mattered. 


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Making it better
We started getting more proactive, thinking about how and when people had problems.  

The Christmas Day meetups for example were to help people move from feeling down about the differences on this important holiday to being happy about the opportunities: having a Kiwi Christmas playing cricket on the beach. 

Rapaki Bay December 2007 – click for enlargements:

Evelin and Karen Rapaki Bay Christmas Ruth

We brought on great staff like Radek to take the web admin work off me so I could spend more time on the Centre and Monika, an employment and business expert to help people with employment – the number 1 stopping point for so many. 

Gradually we built up income from the site by finding new Partners and some innovative ideas, pouring all of the money we made into the Centre. With such a big financial commitment I must admit we have always struggled financially – although we had staff Tammy and I never drew a wage and lived on what was left – but we made it. 

A great achievement
Now looking back at the last three years I can remember the countless people (at least 10,000 families by my reckoning if you count online too) who were comforted, feeling more confident and less alone. We only began collecting data on our work (using a government system) from January 2008 and were amazed at the numbers – a thousand people came to our coffee mornings alone that year and, with the number of people we helped in the UK through the Expos and Seminars we made a positive difference to over 7,000 families in just one year. 

Running the UK Seminars
It was all very well to help people in trouble, but what about helping them avoid getting into problems in the first place. We needed proactive settlement work. In 2007 we stuck our necks out again with the intention of helping people before they got on a plane. So many of the problems we were helping people with were so preventable if they only had good information early enough. 

I cashed in part of my pension to finance the trip and we linked up with the immigration department. They didn’t help with funding but were great in covering the immigration side at the London presentations. We also did the INZ staff in NZ a favour handing out stuff for them.

On that first tour of the UK (London, Bristol and Manchester) we managed to talk to about 550 people and have seen so many of them come successfully to NZ and visit us at the Centre since. Although we lost around $15,000 that first year it was well worth it and we decided to do it again in 2008. 

Here are some pictures of the Seminars – click to enlarge:

Seminar
Mike presenting
Seminar
Attendees of all ages!
Seminar
Mingling afterwards

With Monika’s business expertise we managed to break even that year partly by restricting costs by staying put in New Zealand House which gave us the great opportunity of working again with Immigration New Zealand staff. 

Dropping the ball
Coming back from the second UK tour we realised we needed to increase the money coming in fast. We had been working so hard on the Centre and Seminars we had not spent enough time on the business paying for it all. We needed to protect the service and ourselves – as a family living on around $30K a year our house was starting to fall down! 

We worked like crazy on two fronts: income from the site like before, and a new idea: funding. 

Picking it back up
Over the course of the next six months we worked some crazy hours, but managed to increase income from the site by 44%. But working 80 hours a week each wasn’t something we would be able keep up indefinitely so we looked at the idea of funding to help with the costs of running the Centre (around $80,000 a year). 

Coffee morningAfter asking for help the answer that came back from government was “No, you’re not a charity”. 

So we created and registered the Move 2 New Zealand Trust (Christchurch) to run the Centre. We also renamed the walk-in centre as the Skilled Migrant Information and Resource Centre although I have to admit this was partly because we liked the acronym (SMIRC) partly as a prod at all the naysayers. 


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Charitable Status
We had always wanted to open more SMIRCs around the country but could only afford personally to run one. The idea of funding suddenly opened up the chance of more Centres and we started getting excited about the idea of raising SMIRCs around New Zealand. 

Talking to other people providing services around the country including the Wellington Mayor they started getting excited too. 

Unfortunately the application for charitable status took six months to process, but in that period we spent a large amount of time and energy working with other services in Christchurch. 

Settlement Support
As a result we were in February, to our great surprise, nominated by other services in Christchurch to provide the Settlement Support New Zealand service for the city, a government contract with the Department of Labour running in 18 other cities providing information (not settlement support strangely). 

Coffee morningCharitable status was awarded just in time and we put in a proposal which would see settlement support in Christchurch turn into a proactive team approach. Our proposal was good as we had (using the same system to count) helped 2,147 the previous year while Christchurch’s SSNZ had only helped 127 with the same budget.

Unfortunately despite a huge amount of work we were treated very badly by the Department of Labour staff and ultimately blocked in a very unprofessional way. 

Making a stand
Of course then the immigration service began behaving very badly in response to the recession. We were flooded with requests for help from migrants being blocked from gaining or renewing work permits – many passed over from other services who couldn’t help. Because of our position working specifically with skilled migrants we were the first to recognise the danger to New Zealand and urgently contacted the Minister explaining that it was downright wrong to just kick people out like this and would cause an economic disaster. 

Sadly our efforts were ignored and instead of being heard we were instead accused of being unlicensed immigration advisers for providing support to migrants in need by the office of the Associate Minister Kate Wilkinson. 

MeetingUndaunted we started jumping up and down and media caught the story and ran with it. Although our intention was to raise the profile of this problem we were maybe too successful and embarrassed government staff by highlighting what they were up to. 

We were delighted that we managed to pull something positive out of this situation, calling a meeting to prove what we were saying and getting the help of Lianne Dalziel and Jim Anderton (previously Deputy Prime Minister), both now Christchurch MPs to present our concerns to the Minister Dr. Jonathan Coleman

I actually thought for a while there we might get a nod of thanks but that’s not been the case. The Minister refused to meet with our MPs and ignored the entire issue.

Simple successes
I was very pleased by one major success which was to get a German family who had been made redundant and came to the Centre for help. They were utterly lost when they arrived, referred to us from other fully-funded services and in a desperate state. 

By working very hard (at least 70 hours of hard slog) we not only got these guys a roof over their heads (often day by day) and food but also managed to get them on a plane home rather than languishing for weeks in Christchurch. 

That was a major achievement I’m really proud of as I know if we hadn’t fought for them that family would still be suffering. I got an update from them recently and they’re all fine. 

We would have put them up at our home, but we already had a family of four in a similar position living with us. They too are now back on their feet still in New Zealand and doing well.


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Closing Down
Instead of thanks I was served notice by the new Immigration Advisers Authority that I had somehow broken the new licensing laws and presented myself as a licensed Immigration Adviser or provided immigration advice to an individual. 

Although a year on we are still none the wiser as to how I managed this (when I scrupulously avoid giving immigration advice) the investigator at the IAA offices originally indicated a recent TV interview as proof. 

MeetingAt the time I wrote this article originally I didn’t dare put  a link up to this in case they prosecuted me with penalties for breaking this law up to 7 years in prison! Now I know that the interview was perfectly legal, as was everything else we were doing and so here is the interview.

Judge for yourself if I am providing tailored immigration advice for an individual or presenting myself as a licensed adviser.

Now we have obtained the Authority’s file under the Official Information Act I know they had no reason or justification of any kind to attack us. We’re still working on getting to the bottom of their mess.

At the time we knew nothing and the Authority wouldn’t tell us what I had done wrong. To protect ourselves from prosecution we had to immediately close SMIRC and cancel our 2009 UK Seminars. I thought this would be a good time to turn this into a positive article by remembering the achievements of SMIRC. 

Over the past three years:  

  • Tammy and I have volunteered over 12,000 unpaid hours to this project;
  • Others have volunteered their time, toys, furniture and kitchen equipment to help the people who come here;
  • Tammy and I generated and paid well over $200,000 to keep the service running without any help from any funding source.
  • The Centre directly helped well over 10,000 families personally.

I am extremely proud of what we achieved. 

Celebrating an achievement
We set out to build an efficient and effective service which would bring real benefit to not only the skilled migrants we met, but also Canterbury and New Zealand generally through helping local businesses, service providers and government agencies. 

We proved this concept worked at a fraction of the cost applied to other (government) initiatives, making a significant difference to the number of people surviving the trials of migration. 

Coffee eveningSadly funding to expand this idea was not available but just because a service is efficient and effective doesn’t mean there is money to help it continue – there are many other worthy services struggling for diminishing resources. 

Although extremely sad that our efforts came to an abrupt end, especially without any real reason I think we can walk away with our heads held high and a smile on our faces because of a job well done. 

Thanks to everyone who came along, took part and benefited. There are too many to thank personally, but here’s a try – especial thanks to: 

  • Lianne Dalziel, a strong ally in times of need;
  • George Harding the third trustee of the Move 2 New Zealand Trust;
  • Karen Taylor – who filled our kids room with toys;
  • Our staff over the years – Marilyn, Radek, Monika and Sandra;
  • Corinne Lucas D’Souza who has been running our coffee mornings since 2008;
  • Sue Evans who helped us set up the Centre and loaned the Nintendo;
  • Many people (you know who you are) behind the scenes helping us stay sane;
  • Everyone who has donated recently to help cover costs;

Tammy and I still miss seeing everyone and had a really hard time having to turn many away once we had closed, but I’m happy to celebrate what was an amazing achievement and very glad we did what we did.

Mike Bell
move2nz.com architect and co-founder of the move2nz Migrant Centre.

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