Read interviews with Green and National Party candidates here.
In 2020 Ibrahim Omer was elected to New Zealand’s Parliament, making him only the second refugee elected to the house. Ibrahim came to Wellington in 2008 after fleeing from the war in his homeland of Eritrea. He worked as a cleaner, living in council and state housing, while saving up to go to university.
Ibrahim would attend lectures during the day, and then in the evening return to clean those same lecture theatres. He became a Living Wage community leader, and the chair of ChangeMakers Resettlement Forum: a grassroots NGO prioritising community engagement, advocacy and research.
In October, Ibrahim hopes to win the Wellington Central Electorate. He tells us about life in Eritrea, his favourite coffee spots, and his vision for Wellington.
Tell us about life in Eritrea, and what it was like coming to New Zealand.
In the early years, my life was a happy and typical Eritrean upbringing. I grew up in a tolerant society where people from different cultures and religious backgrounds embraced each other. Whilst my extended family were Muslims, we lived in close proximity and friendship with Christians. Our neighbours were Christians, and we shared our lives together. We celebrated Christian holidays with them and they celebrated the Muslim holidays with us. I attended public schools, including an Islamic primary school, and then my local junior and high school. It was a loving and tolerant environment, culturally conservative, but there was a strong sense of social justice and standing up for people who didn’t have enough.
Although I had a relatively normal childhood, my country was locked in a war of independence for 30 years. I have vivid memories of the fighting in the city where I lived, but also the lack of power and limited food that came with this war. When independence was declared in Eritrea, the mood in the country transformed overnight. For months afterwards, people celebrated in the streets, day and night, with music and dance. However, our country was betrayed by the same people who fought to free Eritrea from colonisers. And now, Eritrea is a military dictatorship. As a result, Eritrea is one of the biggest refugee-producing countries per capita in the world.
I was conscripted into national service as a high school student, meaning that my formal education came to a sudden stop. The national service in Eritrea is meant to be for 18 months, but in actual fact, it’s indefinite. In Eritrea gross human rights abuses have been normalised. Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment are normal.
As a child, I had dreams of being educated and contributing to the advancement of my country, so I knew that if I wanted to have any chance of living out this dream – or living a life at all – I had no choice but to leave. I left behind my family, friends, and the country that I loved and fled to Sudan. I was lucky to arrive alive, given that the chance of being shot and killed on the journey was about 50%. I was eventually granted refugee status and after five years, I began a new life here.
Where do you consider ‘home’ to be?
Wellington has become my home, of course. I love it here and it is where my community is. All my family are back in Eritrea. I saw them again for the first time a couple of years ago. I’d love to be able to see them more often, but the political situation makes that very hard.
What did/do you want to be when you grow up?
I wanted to be a soccer player. I love having a kick around with friends. It is harder to get time to do this now. My other dream was to be a politician. I didn’t think this would ever be possible, in Eritrea or in New Zealand. I still pinch myself that this is the job I have now. It is a true privilege to serve the community.
What’s your favourite Wellington memory?
The Basin Reserve rally in the aftermath of March 15. Thousands and thousands of Wellingtonians came out to support our Muslim community and say no to terrorism and violence. It was a moving event for me. I felt the support of my community and warmth from the crowd towards me and the other diverse speakers. It was a defining moment for Wellington and our country, where we took a firm position towards love and inclusion and against division and violence. I can’t thank Wellington enough for that, I don’t think I, or other Muslim people, could have felt safe again without these events.
Why do you want to represent Wellington Central?
Soon after arriving at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre in 2008, I moved to Wellington with nothing, to begin my new life and make a home.
Wellington Central is where I cleaned offices, hostels, and lecture theatres at Vic Uni, and where I worked as a security guard. It is where I studied and was awarded my degree, and where I have lived, both in council housing and private rentals. It is where I became an activist, and made me who I am, so it’s time to give back the best way I know how and be the voice of Wellington Central in Parliament.
Wellington Central is home to a wide range of New Zealanders – public servants, students, young professionals, creatives as well as people like I was who work hard on minimum wage jobs to get by. It is important that it is a safe inclusive, creative, and prosperous home for all these people, and I’m committed as a local MP, to making sure of it.
Do you think being an MP already gives you an advantage over the other candidates? Why or why not?
As a sitting MP I’ve been able to form the relationships to get things done for Wellington. These relationships are not just at the decision-making table. I’m closely connected with community organisations, faith groups, local councillors, unions, and businesses. These close relationships mean that I will be able to hit the ground running.
What are your top three priorities for Wellington should you be successfully elected? How do you envisage enacting these?
Prioritise the cost-of-living crisis in all decision making, fix our public transport with more frequent and reliable services to connect our communities and reduce emissions, and ensure affordable, accessible and long-term housing for everyone.
We’ve committed to mass rapid public transport from the central city to Island Bay, upgrades to the Basin and Arras tunnels, and a second Mount Vic tunnel.
What do you think Wellington Central should be known for?
A connected, and inclusive community, where people are in meaningful jobs with good conditions. A predator free environment that is also a carbon sink due to the significant native planting and many low carbon transport options. A city with affordable public services and where all people live in warm dry homes, for the long-term if they want to.
What has been a memorable achievement in parliament to date?
There have been many memorable times. One would be when my Members Bill on Wage Theft was drawn and passed its First Reading in Parliament.
The bill proposes to amend the Crimes Act 1961 to make wage theft by employers a criminal offence. Wage theft is widespread in New Zealand, especially for marginalised communities. I experienced it doing horticultural work in Martinborough. My supervisor told me that I had done a poor job that was not worth the cost of shuttling me to and from the workplace and that therefore I should not be paid. As someone who was then living paycheck to paycheck, this was a massive blow, but I was vulnerable and left with no options but to walk away. I want to make sure that everyday New Zealanders don’t suffer in the hands of employers like this.
Do you think New Zealand could accept more than 1,500 refugees per year?
Definitely. Refugees are an asset to our community, bringing diverse knowledge and skills. We must make sure refugee services are well funded to support people to grow and take part once they get here however, and I will advocate for this in our budget processes.
What are you watching, reading, or listening to at the moment?
Although it has just finished, I’ve loved watching the FIFA World Cup, especially the games that have been hosted in Wellington. I’m reading On Disinformation: How to Fight for Truth and Protect Democracy by Lee McIntryre, about disinformation in America.
Where do you go for a bit of escapism, or to reflect?
Going to the mosque is a really important part of my spirituality, and a place that I go to reflect and connect with others. The gym and exercising is also important to me, both mentally and physically. When I get the opportunity I love to travel to the West Coast to see my friend, William, who came to New Zealand with me.
Do you have any hobbies? Or something people might not know about you?
One of my hobbies is drinking coffee at one of the many cafes that Wellington Central has to offer. I am a regular at Mystic Kitchen on Tory Street, Raglan Roast and the Old George on the Terrace. VicBooks was a favourite when I was a student too.
I speak seven languages. English is far from my first, and while that brings challenges, being able to connect to many communities is priceless.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Or someone in a similar situation?
I wish I could tell my younger self to have hope. I was going through a lot at 18. For much of the time I was just trying to survive. I wish I could reach back and tell myself to trust that you will end up where you need to be. That you don’t need to doubt yourself because you are on the right track and just to double down. You will get to safety, you will study, you will contribute, you will find a community and happiness.
I have found all of those things in Wellington.
New Zealand’s General Election takes place on 14 October, 2023. Make sure you’re registered to vote here.