“You are of us. We are of you”

Christchurch refugee advocate, Sally Pitama, says the strong connection she feels to whānau born in Africa, Asia and the Middle East is based on an ancient whakapapa that they share with Māori.

Awhi refugees and migrants

Sally is Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu Refugee and Migrant Sector Advocate and cultural advisor to the Canterbury Refugee and Resource Centre in Christchurch. Twenty two years ago when her whaunaunga, Taa Mark Solomon, was Kaiwhakahaere o Ngāi Tahu, he asked Sally and her brother Ricki to awhi refugees and migrants to Te Wai Pounamu.

“We were told very succinctly about our genealogy back to the rift of Africa and how the DNA of those long ago tipuna travelled with them to eventually populate the rest of the world. It would have taken us at least a billion and a half years to get from there to Aotearoa but our DNA, as Māori, is in all those countries.

“That’s the reality given to me by our aunties and uncles to teach our children and others to welcome those who come here to live and give them that genealogy.

“I say to them, ‘you are of us, we are of you’,and I welcome them as whānau from generations back.”

Getting people their entitlements

Sally has a lifetime of practical experience, working closely with people at all levels of government from Ministers, and career bureaucrats to social workers and front-line staff. She was the electorate secretary for Labour politician and MP for Ikaroa-Rawhiti, Parekura Horomia, until his death in 2013 and is currently a member of the South Islands Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu.

“I know how government agencies work and I know how iwi and other whānau sometimes struggle to get what they need. I try to use that experience to help people of all nationalities with their housing, educational and social welfare needs – everything they are entitled to.”

“Tika, doing things in the right way”

Chair of Canterbury Refugee and Resource Centre, Ahmed Tani works closely with Sally, often sharing his office with her and always listening to her advice.

“Sally is so important to us. As tangata whenua she helps us understand the culture of the first people of this land and advises us wisely when dealing with agencies.”

“She’s patient and thoughtful and great fun to work with her, but when there is something wrong, she says it straight and I like that.

“She always encourages me to think twice before I make a decision to make sure that everything we do is tika, that we’re doing things in the right way.”

When asked how she likes working with her old friend Ahmed, Sally’s reply is simple.

“He’s whānau. His children are like my children. His tikanga and kawa is like mine. Basically, it’s respect for everyone and knowledge of who you are.”

Read about the rift of Africa here