Newcomers Converge Rebuilding City

When you move to a new city it’s hard enough to fit it, but Hunter Calder found out that when you move to Christchurch, it’s not just hard to fit in and find somewhere to live, it’s finding the nearest supermarket, the cheapest petrol station, the local church, the closest gym and the nearest bus stop.

And that’s not to mention the troublesome journey of navigating unfamiliar streets and seemingly endless roadwork’s.  For Christchurch’s new arrivals they have to do all of that …and more.

Joao Barbosa is one of those newcomers.   He boarded his plane in Brazil four years ago, carefully walking up the stairwell for his flight destined for Aotearoa. It was to be his summertime vacation but Barbosa ended up falling in love with New Zealand and he ended up staying.

The Christchurch earthquakes were a turning point for Barbosa who was living and working in Queenstown at the time the devastating February quake struck.  Without a second thought he packed up his bags and moved to Christchurch a few months later to try his hand at something new – setting up his own painting business in a new city, as a foreigner.


FINAL COAT: Joao Barbosa said the this job had taken him a week and a half.

The smell of paint pervades the room. Barbosa is working in a suburban home in the eastern part of Christchurch – one of the few houses that remain in this area.

But it has not been all easy-going as a newcomer.   Barbosa said he initially had difficulty finding accommodation and it was working with all the red tape that proved almost insurmountable for him.

And then there were problems; he said he was mistreated because English was not his first language which he believes led to under payment and unfair treatment.

“There was not enough money and I just lost money. The bigger companies have a monopoly on the rebuild.”

As the days become colder and winter falls, Barbosa said the congested traffic and added road- repairs were affecting his commuting times which could be frustrating – something he was not used to back home.

But three years on and things were now getting better, as he now worked alongside Rebuild Me – a project management office who manages the rebuild process for their clients.

He’s sticking it out and working harder and harder to make ends meet.

It’s not all bad for Barbosa. He can slowly see the city “becoming beautiful”.

The work day passes and another dollar is earned, Barbosa enjoys living and working in Christchurch, even if the city is in reconstruction mode.

“Sure, there is a lack of infrastructure and the roads are a bit bumpy.  For me it’s a normal city, because I’m working and I don’t really get socially out so don’t notice the lack of places to go. The city does work still.”

One leading website focusing on the rebuild is attracting more than 95,000 hits every month. Rebuild Christchurch sets out to bring all information about the Christchurch rebuild on to one online platform.

Rebuild Christchurch founder Deon Swiggs said the website was a great way for newcomers to find out what was happening in Christchurch during the rebuild.

“In terms of helping newcomers the site tells people what is actually happening in the city, and raises the issues that newcomers may have concerns about – accommodation being the big one.

“We connect people with information and are sort of the ‘middle person’ actually supporting the organisations that are working on the rebuild and supporting the talent wanting to come and help with the rebuild.                                                                                               …We have every bit of information about the rebuild in one place.” – Rebuild Christchurch founder Deon Swiggs

Swiggs created Rebuild Christchurch in late 2010 after the September earthquake; the site was only in its early stages when university student Abel Ang arrived in Christchurch, a week before the February earthquake – on a scholarship to further his education.

Ang did not know what to expect, but it’s ended up that his move to Christchurch has been a positive one.  Thousands of kilometres from his home in Malaysia his outlook on life has changed.

“The earthquake was a life experience, it was tragic and traumatising, but we have to take it in our stride and accept it.

“It’s made me stronger.”

As a newcomer, and a student fitting into the city Ang felt welcomed into the city when he arrived and this continued when the unexpected occurred.

“It was strange, post-quake, as there was a heightened cohesiveness of the entire city that came together. Regardless of your background or what language you spoke it seemed as everyone became much closer.

“It felt like you were not foreign anymore, as everyone had experienced some very traumatising events and loss.”

The earthquake had helped him fit in, but communicating had its own obstacles.

“Even though English is my main language I had the feeling that I could not comprehend what locals were saying. They spoke too quickly, too easily… I felt like I came across as someone who looked really dumb.”

Long days hovering over medical experiments and hours researching at university are the norm for Ang, but after three years he is now at ease in a Christchurch he calls home.

He reflects on all that has happened and wondered if it would have been easier had he been more proactive in seeking help from services to integrate in the city.

It’s clear by flicking through his diary that he is a focused young man, – committed to his bio-medical studies and fitness regime.

“The culture here is so driven to outdoors. Even after the quake, gyms were still open which was   good to keep myself active.

“In that respect I was very happy as I still had access to the things that were important to me.”

As a newcomer there were the normal difficulties of settling in, but Ang was thankful services and facilities were mostly still available, even if public facilities were sometimes over-populated, congested and scattered across the city.

“It was the sense of normality.”

However transport and accommodation were a problem – there was a lack of accommodation after the earthquake.  Bus timetables were wrong – they had not been updated.

Despite these personal dilemmas Ang believes the central city had suffered more.  As a newcomer he was lucky as he did not know the old Christchurch.

PRE-QUAKE: ChristChurch Cathedral

PRE-QUAKE: ChristChurch Cathedral

“I feel the loss through my friends though; but that loss doesn’t really translate to me.  I never knew the old Christchurch,” Ang said.

POST QUAKE:  The Christchurch Cathedral has been abandoned since  February 2011.

POST QUAKE: The Christchurch Cathedral has been abandoned since February 2011.

The Christchurch Migrant Centre is one of the organisations bringing international newcomers like Abel Ang together.

Case manager Jane Song is originally from China, but has been in New Zealand for 12 years and knows exactly what it is like to be a newcomer.

“I started here, (at the migrant centre), after the earthquakes; I lost my job, but know what it’s like coming to a new place.”

Song said she had dealt with about 70 different ethnic groups within the last year, not just people who had come to Christchurch for the rebuild but refugees, migrants, workers, students’ families and  “anyone from off-shore”, who was settling into the Christchurch while it rebuilt.

An earlier report in The Press showed in the 12 months till May the net migration gain to Christchurch was more than 5400 migrants.

The Christchurch Migrant Centre connects these newcomers with the services and agencies and support they require.

However, Song said, she mostly worked with people of Asian descent. – the Asian population in Christchurch had increased from five to nine percent between 2001-2013.

“Asian and European cultures are very different.”

Europeans coming to New Zealand do not tend to experience the same cultural shock that most Asian people do.

Song said some Asians experienced mental health problems which they often kept to themselves – the language barrier made it harder for them to seek help and being in a rebuilding city could add to this problem.

“They sell their home, give up their job and livelihood and when they move here they are quite shocked because it’s different, they have very high expectations, then they get here they find it quite hard.”

The centre would operate and help people fit into the city – “whether the city was rebuilding or not”.

“Newcomers need support regardless if the city is rebuilding.  They (migrants) are in a foreign place.  The fact that Christchurch is rebuilding makes the process a little bit different.”


Christchurch still a construction site Hannah Cunningham sits in traffic on a bus, stop -starting, navigating congested Lincoln Road – one of several ‘traffic hot-spots’ in Christchurch.  She questions if it would have been better had she walked this morning.  Perhaps tomorrow?

Cunningham moved to Christchurch earlier this year to study journalism.  She had moved from small-town Geraldine, but knows what it is like living in a new place – having spent 2013 in Hamilton studying radio.

As she sips her morning coffee and reads the morning news she nods her head. – agreeing with yet another traffic congestion headline.

Cars backed up

 “It’s really quite annoying,” Cunningham said.

 It’s one of the woes of living in a rebuilding city – the intensified traffic which has changed due to the restructured geography of the city.

Cunningham knew she was coming to a reconstructing city to study and thought she was ready to live in the detached environment.

But her perceptions of a city in rebuild mode could not have prepared her for the reality she was faced with.

“It’s definitely different to a normal functioning city as everything is disjointed, broken or deserted.”

Although the city is not fully operational Cunningham said the essential things were available.

“Christchurch is certainly still liveable.”

The number of students in Christchurch is slowly on the rise again -however, the lack of social amenities and venues makes socialising for students harder.

Cunningham said it had been difficult to catch up with old friends and make new ones as there was not a major social hub as in most towns and cities.

“In Hamilton it was easier. But it’s like moving to any other city; it just takes time adjusting to new routines and making new friends.  Though, I don’t feel like a newcomer here.”

Cunningham recalls the old Christchurch from her childhood and was saddened to now be re-living the stories of what had happened.


JUXTAPOSITION: New artwork appearing throughout the construction zones of the city.

The studying journalist said the atmosphere of Christchurch is warming and very welcoming. She has had a positive experience integrating into Christchurch’s “quite tight and close-knit” community.

As modern structures emerge, Cunningham can see a lot is happening and the future of Christchurch will be fun and innovative – her move up the road has been mostly straight forward, despite the minor disruptions.

“It’s is a good city to be in with a bright future, I guess people just have to be patient as it is still rebuilding,” Cunningham said.

Demand for workers has never been higher and they are flocking to Christchurch from around the world for what recruiters, Canstaff, call the ‘world’s biggest rebuild’.

Canstaff specialise in construction and engineering and marketing manager Trina Burt said the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia were the biggest markets that people came from.

“The Filipino market is increasing too. They are a very transient work-force.”

Burt said there were not many language barriers with European people moving to the city as the culture was similar to back home.

“Filipino people on the other hand required a bit more pastoral care as Christchurch was not only a city in ruins, it is a very different culture. “

A Filipino tradesman now working and living in New Zealand agreed -but didn’t want to be named.

It is smoko time, on a chilly Wednesday afternoon.  He moved to New Zealand to set up a new life for his three children and wife and said it was much harder financially coming from the Philippines.

“European culture can just pack up and fly over.”

Although he came as migrant worker rather than a refugee it was two years before his children joined him and he had struggled finding accommodation and getting “things sorted for when they came over”.

Now that his family is settled in Christchurch he had not really noticed the disruptions – the weather, language and initial accommodation difficulties were the only problems his family had experienced.

The sun begins to lower in the horizon; and he is happy his children will have “more opportunities and a better future”.

“I feel safer for myself and my family here in New Zealand.”  – and he wants to stay permanently with his family.


FAMILY TIME – It is common for men to move to Christchurch first and their families later follow.

Canstaff international operations manager Corali Hingston said recruitment of workers from abroad had been very successful and most people and families were settling into the rebuilding city well.

But younger workers were more likely to become home-sick.

Canstaff help people find work and relocate to Christchurch to work, but they had to sit tests before they even board the plane.

Hingston said it was an exciting journey when they finally arrived and being able to meet them and help them settle into the different dynamics of the city was rewarding.

She stressed the importance that migrant workers coming to Christchurch had to have the right attitude to integrate into a rebuilding city

“They have to want to fit in with communities here.”

Canstaff facilitate pastoral care and orientation programmes, providing assistance for   migrant workers in Christchurch’s construction industry but “we can’t help and support people if they don’t ask for it”.

Christchurch District Health Board nurse Donna Amosa is tired after her third eight-hour night shift this week.  But as she clambers onto her push bike she is thankful she doesn’t have the morning rush-hour traffic to contend with and that today was her last shift for the week.

As a newcomer, Amosa’s experience has been positive – the rebuild had not affected her fitting into the city.

The former Aucklander moved to Christchurch in February 2014 and fell in love with the city.

“It’s a nice change of scenery from the fast-paced movement of Auckland.”


THRIVING: New Regent Street in the Central Business District is popular with tourists and business people.

Amosa enjoys the rural feeling of the city and the fact that it’s not hard to get out and away for the weekend.

“Sure buildings come down, and roads are closed, and there are disruptions which are not normally found in a normal city. But from where I see it, there are no major differences, the city is still operating, just there is a lack of integration and ‘full’ services available, and a greater distance between facilities.”

Christchurch might look like a warzone with buildings being pulled down and “not much going up”, but Amosa was excited to see the potential in what was being created.

One thing she struggled with was finding places to go when reconnecting with old friends.

In fact, moving to a rebuilding city hadn’t made it harder or easier for Amosa.

“It would nearly be the same no matter where you moved to – except for accommodation.”

She was lucky when looking for accommodation as she was only seeking a bedroom and not an entire house.  But she did sympathise with others who were experiencing hardship in the housing market.

“I’m not saying that there are not newcomers out there who are struggling with fitting in here, it’s just I haven’t really found it that difficult, socially or finding somewhere to live.”

But despite being a new person in a new place Amosa had felt welcomed into the community and believed Canterbury people needed to look after themselves, not just newcomers.

“The focus, in my opinion, should really be on the people who are already living in the city because they have seen more change than we have.”



One organisation working on the ground in Christchurch is the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce.

Settlement support coordinator Lisa Burdes said their organisation was like an information referral system that helped international workers and employers with practical information for settling into Christchurch.

The demand for their services and assistance has definitely sped up because so many people are moving to help with the rebuild.

The reconstructing city is disjointed – a mixture of business people and construction workers, and amongst it all are tourists and shops.

Burdes said the reality of Christchurch was often quite different to what newcomers actually expected.

Health-care, transport, education, finances and accommodation were among the things on the priority list that people needed information about.

As a support agency, Burdes confirmed that accommodation and communication or language barriers were the main difficulties people faced.

Kiwis tend to have a “less direct way of communicating”, and those not of European descent often found understanding and discussion difficult – especially those of Asian descent.

Despite the language barrier Burdes said employers had been proactive working around those issues.  Social events and integration forums and discussions allowed newcomers to share stories and help each other outside the work place.

“These people have left their home, in some cases their family – to help rebuild our city, so we should ensure they settle into our city well.  It’s in our best interest to help workers and look after them while they are here.”

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