by JUDITH WILLIAMS
The national discussion around New Zealand’s intake of refugees fleeing the Middle East crisis reminded me of another refugee situation involving a New Zealand Catholic parish in the 1980s. The main player was Fr Peter Gray.

Quiet and almost shy, he was the pastor of the new Hibiscus Coast parish of St John on Auckland’s North Shore during  the brief period when my home of Puhoi was part of that parish.

Fr Peter, who arrived on the coast in 1979 and spent eight years there, is still remembered for a personal initiative which, at its height, saw around 100 Cambodians, refugees from Pol Pot’s regime and the infamous “Killing Fields”, helped to make new lives in our area.

The New Zealand Government had agreed to take some of the refugees and of his own initiative – there was no consultation with the bishop, he recalls – this quietly modest man went to the Mangere refugee centre and arranged to bring Sunny and Lon Chen and their extended family to his parish.

A big house at Orewa was their first accommodation, then, “we have this flat”, Fr Gray thought. “Could we put them up there?”

The flat referred to was at the rear of the new presbytery at Orewa. Afterwards to become known as Peter’s Place, and to be used as a parish meeting centre, Sunny and Lon Chen’s family was later housed there.

The Cambodians needed health assistance, language lessons and instructions in how to use modern household appliances. Parishioners, notably Val and the late Mick Bennett and my aunt, Alma Schischka, cared for the newcomers, helping them with shopping and medical
appointments, while an arrangement was made with Orewa College’s community education classes for them to have English lessons.

And then they needed jobs, which Val and Fr Peter helped them find. The industrial suburbs of Silverdale and Glenfield had factories that provided jobs for the men, and sewing was sourced for the women.

Fr Peter’s involvement lasted three or four years and then he left for Australia to do a nine-month counselling course.

On his return he found the diocese had shifted him to Mangere Bridge parish.

Val and Mick, meantime, continued with the care of the refugees and today Val is still in touch with Sunny and Lon, who have changed their surname to Ong and are now living in the city. Sunny, now retired, was the spokesman for the family, which grew as relatives joined them from Cambodia.

“It didn’t take them long to get on their feet,” Val says. “They were very industrious
and supportive of each other.”

In his ministry as a priest Fr Gray has since notched up a record for service, in 17 parishes, and today is back living on the Hibiscus Coast, where, he says, he has to be reminded that he is in retirement.

But his ideals and his interest in helping the homeless are still alive. Now aged 82, he lives with three other people in a  big house he owns, offering them accommodation at a low rental, and he enjoys visiting parishioners and encouraging them on their spiritual journey.

“It would be good if people can help the needy in some way and strive to do so,” he says quietly.

Earlier this year a little reunion saw Fr Peter, Val and Alma meet up again at St John’s with the refugees whom they had helped make a new home almost 40 years ago.

Back then, when the Khmer Rouge started gathering up people from different regions, and the killing had commenced, Sunny and Lon, who were ethnic Chinese, realising the danger, managed to make their escape from Cambodia, ending up in a United Nations camp in
Thailand.

From there they wrote to France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, seeking
sponsors.

The Catholic and Methodist churches of the Hibiscus Coast responded and the United Nations and the New Zealand Government paid their airfares.

The refugees were given New Zealand residency and seven weeks’ coaching in basic English at Auckland’s Mangere refugee centre. When Fr Peter visited the centre, he was impressed by what he saw and told his parishioners about the help needed.

Val and her husband were “hooked” and became known among the Hibiscus Coast refugee families as Uncle Mick and Auntie Val, while Val’s friend and fellow parishioner Alma Schischka became involved with the Leng family, who arrived later.

Sunny settled into his new life quickly.

After eight years he moved to Henderson, buying a takeaway business at Massey,
and since then has become a real estate agent, property-owner and landlord.

Now retired, he says after 36 years the Auckland Cambodian Chinese are all very well integrated and have produced doctors, lawyers, accountants and pharmacists.

In New Zealand he found a caring country. The treatment by the western world of differing peoples was a great example. “Don’t underestimate the influence of the good work you have done at that time,” he says.

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