Congratulatory messages have been pouring in for former refugee Orphee Mickalad, who has won a by-election to become a Palmerston North city councillor.
“He is the first from the African community or the refugee community (having come here from war-torn Congo) to get to the post. And it is great to see this changing face of the council,” Green Party MP Teanau Tuiono says.
Golriz Ghahraman, the first "refugee MP", sees Mickalad’s election as a win for inclusion in Aotearoa. “What an absolute joy for Palmerston North. What a thing to be proud of - to have a democracy that is inclusive, to the level of making history.” She believes a win like this means a lot to people in migrant communities around the country, and that there are “young people out there who are suddenly a little more confident of being a New Zealander.”
Mickalad had to find that confidence, too. “The first challenge I had to overcome was to convince myself I had enough of what it took to convince people to give a chance to someone like me,” he recalls.
And when he finally did, not everyone was accepting of the ethnic diversity coming their way. “I’ve had people drop nasty letters in my mailbox,” say Mickalad. “And also writing racist symbols on my billboards, calling me a monkey, 'go back to your country' that sort of thing.”
“Racism is an undercurrent in New Zealand,” he says. “And unless we bring it out and confront it, it’s going to remain an undercurrent.”
Mickalad’s family arrived in Palmerston North 15 years ago. Now he just wants to give back to the city that nurtured him. Tuiono sees the city choosing him as a sign of acceptance of diversity. “The hope is that people who come from overseas to settle here in Aotearoa live by the Treaty, and that they come to understand the issues and challenges that Māori here face.”
Ghahraman agrees. “We often are indigenous communities who have been displaced, especially refugees. We know what it’s like to be alienated from your land, from your language, suffer wars that are aimed at taking your resource.”
She believes the maramatanga works both ways, explaining how after the Christchurch attacks it was Māori who stood up for the Muslim community. “We are not the same,” she goes on to clarify. “Māori are indigenous and have ongoing rights. As migrants, we don’t have that. But what we are facing is systemic prejudice.”
Appreciating Māori voices
Mickalad was determined to not let this prejudice get in the way. And where there were vile comments, he could also see people defending him, especially on his social media pages. “I did not want to highlight that issue during the election because I did not want to distract me from my message,” he says.
And for the newly elected councillor, awareness of cultural identity can be a lens into the future. “For me it’s all about being making sure that our tangata whenua and our mana whenua… that we are giving mental assent to their authority, to their place and status, and that we also appreciate Māori voices on things that are important to them, be it land, water or infrastructure.”
Beating 10 other candidates is no easy feat, especially for someone with a background so different. For this 30-year old, another new journey has only just begun.