Compared to say Auckland, Dunedin’s ethnic makeup may seem overwhelmingly European. However, Dunedin – and the University of Otago for that matter – has a long and proud history of welcoming different cultures and ethnicities into the community and there are a large number of cultural strands to our city’s makeup.
Maori first arrived here around 1200, and our manawhenua/pakeha interaction goes back to the early 1800s. In 1848, when the city’s founding Scottish settlers arrived, they were assisted and sustained by the local Maori who helped them with housing and food over that first crucial year when they had little means of supporting themselves.
Chinese were also among the more prolific early immigrants to this region, many of them arriving in the 1860’s gold-rush area. At one stage there were more than 4,000 Chinese miners in Otago and at some diggings they outnumbered the Europeans.
Subsequent arrivals of British, Germans, Poles, Lebanese, Dutch, Indian, Pasifika, French and many others has seen Dunedin’s cultural makeup melded into a much more complex weave, where no one culture so clearly dominates.
The same is true of the University.
I can recall many Malaysian students, amongst others, in the 1960s and 70s brought here under the Colombo plan, and also a number of African students.
Of course, there were other nationalities then as well, but the range of countries that now contribute to the cultural diversity of Dunedin has increased even more.
Soon our city will welcome the first intake of around 50 Syrians – refugees who have fled from one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time in search of a better life for their families.
The New Zealand Government recently chose Dunedin as a new refugee resettlement location because we have a strong set of services, good employment opportunities, suitable housing and, most importantly, excellent community support.
The Red Cross has done a terrific job coordinating volunteers who will formally assist with the successful integration of Syrian families into our community.
However, it is also the small, informal gestures that can be the building blocks of integration.
Helping with grocery shopping, giving directions and even friendly acknowledgements are small acts that can make the world of difference to these new members of our community.
It makes me proud to live in a community where people care and are so willing to lend a hand to welcome and support those in need. I know that many students, with such a strong record of volunteer effort, will be among the many who make Syrian families welcome in our city.