Advocate talks racism and supporting Pasifika in South Island towns and cities

Melissa Lama is a recent graduate from Otago University completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in politics and is  currently completing her Masters in Business and Administration. It is her interest in the political landscape and her work in public service that is a driving force for her advocacy work, not only with Pasifika but Muslim communities as well.

Of Tongan descent, Melissa was born in Auckland and at the age of three her family made the move to the South Island where they settled in Christchurch. Melissa reflects on growing up in Christchurch and the impact it made on her decision to work in the advocacy space.

Melissa says witnessing the bureaucracy within the New Zealand system and the struggles people faced accessing services was something that ignited her to get involved in politics. She says she wanted to learn more and upskill in this area to support people dealing with the system. 

Reflecting on her own upbringing, the mother of two pays tribute to her mother who raised her and her siblings on her own. Melissa says despite growing up in a low socio-economic environment their mother did the best job providing for them. Outside her family unit though, Melissa says it was a different story. From a cultural aspect, she says they had to constantly validate their identity. 

“At home you knew where your identity was but the moment you stepped out of that space you were in a completely different space that sometimes didn’t often make you feel represented or welcomed, you had great friends who belonged to communities outside of your own who did their best to make you comfortable but the reality is you still had other factors to try work in as a Pasifika growing up in the South Island”

However she says there were definite positives from her experience. She says growing up around the orchards, and around the Recognised Seasonal Employers Scheme saw members of her family migrate around the lower South Island for employment opportunities.

PW spoke to Melissa about whether she saw differences with Pasifika communities in the North Island and those in the South Island with respect to having access to services. She cites Oamaru as an example that is used as a reference point from central government on Oamaru’s growing density of Pacific people, but she notes funding opportunities for  regional and  local regional services end in the bigger cities.

“Often from Christchurch down we get a Southern region representative as opposed to someone for Otago, or for Southland, when it comes to service delivery of government services. It’s region specific as opposed to town or city specific.”Melissa Lama

Melissa thinks this creates a barrier, saying “It misses the uniqueness or point of difference of our cities, I think anyone in Dunedin or Invercargill, while we are in the same Southern region, we are different in some of our needs. I feel government are aware, but maybe in terms of resource allocation it’s not a priority or maybe it will be allocated somewhere else.” 

Another area close to Melissa’s heart is her advocacy work within the Muslim community. Melissa and her husband are Muslim and committed to Islam. She says she is glad of the path she has taken and it is a journey that is right for their family. She says its an everyday commitment and it works for them.

Melissa is committed to community advocacy work in the Muslim community and knows there’s more she can do to offer support.

“I understand that every culture is different so trying to find a way to give advocacy without taking away faith and voice from those point of differences in the Muslim communities is something I’m learning.”  Melissa Lama

March 15, 2019 will forever be etched in the history of New Zealand as one of the darkest periods where two consecutive shootings occurred at mosques in Christchurch, during Friday prayer. The attack was carried out by a single gunman who entered mosques, the Al Noor Mosque and at Linwood Islamic Centre. 51 people were killed and 40 injured. 

For Melissa it is a sensitive subject and all too real for their family. It’s not something Melissa nor her husband are keen to discuss in detail out of respect for the families and victims of the shooting. Melissa recounts just how real it was for her family.

“My husband and my boys were on their way to Masjid al-Noor for Jumu’ah that dayI was in Wellington that day. One of my kids fell asleep, usually my husband would just take them in and hold them in there but he thought I’ve got few minutes, so I’ll go homeWhen he got home Mum was still asleep so it delayed his return back to the mosque. Things like that don’t normally happen for us. Usually she’s up waiting knowing he has to go to the masjid.”

“Why us, is the question that we always ask ourselves. Why are we the lucky ones, or why were we fortunate enough? I just think it’s such a horrible event for the community and it’s always going to stick with them, and I think it’s always going to affect the way they feel around their safety regardless of the messaging from our Prime Minister; that Zealand is a kind place. But there’s still other things that are happening that would say otherwise.”

“So until we see some real tangible changes besides just words of kindness around racism and hate speech and all those things, the community are still going to feel like they’re at threat. Muslim people are very resilient, very forgiving people, but if anything, all we want to see is more kindness in the policies that we see from our government moving forward”

Melissa was part of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terrorist attacks. She says having a voice was something she held close to her heart throughout the process. She was humbled to hear from members of the Muslim community acknowledge that before the shooting there had been systemic racism, and racism in general in this country. Communities like Maori, Pacific and a lot of ethnic communities endured a lot of that prior to the shooting.

“Its like, we’ve come this far. We’re in 2020 moving into 2021, and we’re still dealing with the same stuff. Some people say ‘get over it now, people are nice and changing’ but its very easy to utter those words of ‘we see change and things are getting better’ when you’re not the people in the situation constantly being told to validate your identity, your sense of belonging.”

She admits it also opened her eyes to the stigma of being Muslim held by some within the Pasifika community.

“I’m not gonna lie, part of the reason I hadn’t talked about being Muslim or openly Muslim in our Pasifika community [is] because I hardly felt safe about it. And part of that was because our people only knew Christianity as being the ‘one religion’ that we are supposed to be as Pacific. And I guess, for a lot for them, the idea and their knowledge of the Islamic faith was what they’ve seen from media.”

She says it was hurtful to hear comments made to her children “‘Don’t let them play with guns. You never know what the’re gonna do’; jokes like that which are not actually funny. People know me, know I don’t take any of that nonsense, and I feel privileged that I had the guts to stand up against that.”

“But why should I have to? Why should we wait for something like this to make you realise that you’re contributing to that discrimination? And if anything, we’re all in the same situation here. We’re trying to fight hate speech and racism.”Melissa Lama

She adds, we are all in this together and we all have a role to play to make that change.

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