Earthless Trees

Nicholas Mutch

trees-teamEarthless Trees, a book with eleven diverse short stories exploring the experiences of refugees in New Zealand, gives a unique insight into a group of people whose stories deserve to be told. In reading this book, and in writing this article, I came to feel something of a strange, out of place emotion. Despite some of the horrible imagery and the enormous trials faced by some of these refugees, I almost felt a pang of envy. As all writers can attest to, I aspire to have a personal story worthy writing about, and I know that nothing I could write about my life, no matter how eloquent or well written could be anywhere near as interesting or moving as the story of someone who has been displaced from their homeland. I am sure I would think differently if I had experienced war, famine or persecution, and I don’t wish to diminish the refugee experience, but I found Earthless Trees a fascinating collection of stories worth telling.

Refugees in New Zealand
When talking about refugee experiences it is very important to know some background information. The term refugee is sometimes used a little loosely but the United Nations has a very specific definition: ‘A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’ Basically, what all that means is someone is forced to seek refuge in a foreign country because their safety, human rights or lives are at risk in their home country owing to their ethnicity or beliefs. An immigrant on the other hand is someone who voluntarily moves from one country to another for any number of various reasons. Figures vary, but the UNHCR - The UN refugee agency - reports that there are over 11 million people who fit these criteria.

Although the exact number varies, New Zealand has a quota of 750 refugees it accepts per year. Once they have been accepted into the country, refugees can ‘sponsor’ family members (including children and spouses) to come and join them. There are also many other people who seek asylum on reaching New Zealand.


Refugee Stories
The stories in Earthless Trees detail the experiences of young refugees before, during and after their journeys to New Zealand. Refugees generally come from countries that are burdened with anything from a dictatorial regime, such as the one Yugoslavia suffered in the 1990s, to the conflict, civil war and anarchy which has devastated Somalia since the 1970s. One of the best things the book does is give destructive conflicts, such as these, a very human face. Joseph Stalin once made the morbidly insightful comment that the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic. Telling the stories of individuals who survive, despite losing their family, homes and sense of security in these conflicts, is far more powerful than a report that states something like ‘74 people were killed today in a bombing raid.’

The stories themselves are the experiences of young refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan. With a few exceptions, the stories are honest and saddening depictions of life in war torn situations. Even though these stories are very personal descriptions of the situations refugees found themselves in, I would have found it helpful to have some background information about the specific conflicts. This would have given me a better understanding of the historical context of the stories. This does, however, offer interested readers a good opportunity to do some research of their own, something I would recommend to make to get the most out of the stories.

caligWhile all the stories are very interesting, the highlight for me was two stories written by Shamim Homayun, ‘Words of Honey and Sugar’ and ‘Elements of Good Calligraphy’. They are stories about Afghanistan’s cultural history, with one story describing the experiences of girl whose father ran an opium den, and the second about the art of ancient Arabic calligraphy. These stories were fascinating as they were beautifully written by Shamim, who has a great eye for suspense and drama, while at the same time introducing me to elements of Arabic culture and history that were completely new to me.

All of the stories in Earthless Trees deserve to be read, as they contain poignant and moving accounts of real life experiences and situations that you might otherwise never hear about. The only way to really understand these stories of course is to read the book, so why don’t you contact Refugees as Survivors and purchase a copy for yourself!


It is World Refugee Day on June 20, but it is always a good time to get involved in helping make the difficult lives of New Zealand refugees easier. Check out the ideas below.

•The easiest way to help out is simply to be a friend to refugees in your school or community.

•Find out more about refugees - this may not sound like much, but the more we understand about the struggles refugees face, the more likely we are to create worthwhile friendships and welcoming communities.

•Think about volunteering, check out


earthless-trees-cover1Check out some articles by refugees at Just Focus:

Watch videos from the YouTube Young Refugees Speak Up channel

Have a look at refugee focused sites like:

Refugees as Survivors: &


Refugee Services Aotearoa NZ:

Voice It (a radio programme and publication from young refugees in Aotearoa NZ):

Mixit (Auckland based arts project):

INTERVIEW with Samson Sahele (Coordinator of the Earthless Trees Project)

What was the main purpose of Earthless Trees?

The main purposes were:

-to build capacity in young refugees,
-teach creative writing skills,
-creating a career path and to helping young refugees with their education
-spread the word about the situation of refugees in New Zealand.

How have the participants of the project contributed to their local communities?

The participants have become a voice of their community by telling their community issues to different main stream media sectors.

The participants have become roles model for the young refugee groups in Wellington. They also have now the confidence to participate in mainstream writing groups and other public events on behalf of their community.

What do you think is the best way for people to get involved if they want to lend helping hand to refugees in their local communities?

The best way for people from the host community to get involved is by visiting our office, by visiting different refugee service provider web sites, becoming volunteers and by participating in community events such as World Refugee day on ‘09 June 20th.

This article was originally published in Tearaway Magazine.

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