by Octavia Cade
The water was heavy around her thighs, soft with salt and the little waves curled around her flesh as an animal might, nuzzling her, upholding.
This was, she thought, the favourite part of her job.
The refugees stood on the beach, awkward in new clothes. Their feet weren’t quite covered with water yet, and one of them, the smallest girl, skipped backward when a wave came near. Neri didn’t know if the child was frightened of the water or if she was just remembering how to play. She couldn’t tell from her expression: the little girl was blank all over. Even the crowd on the beach behind made no impression her – she pressed against her new parents, arms so firmly wrapped around a stuffed toy that only the barest hint of green feathers, of beak, poked through the gap between elbows.
Sahir stood in the water beside her. They were almost exactly the same height, so when Neri turned to him to check if he was ready, if he was happy, she could look him right in the eye.
“I want to be the one to go first,” he’d said to her. “I want the children to see there’s nothing to fear.” He was a kind man who would have offered for any of the kids, Neri thought, but his concern was mostly for his own son, and for the little girl with the toy kākāpō.
“There is nothing to fear,” Wiremu had told him. The principal of the neighbourhood school, he was also involved in the ceremony; most of the newcomers would be under his care and he wanted to show himself available to them even before the official welcome of citizenship. “But it is a good thing for you to do regardless. And all the elders will be with you, supporting you.”
Those elders were ranged behind, a half-circle standing in the sea that merged at the waterline with the crowd onshore. “We want you to feel supported,” said Neri.
She’d met them for the first time at the settlement centre in Māngere. The primary hub for refugee services, it housed new arrivals for the first two months of their residence, providing medical care, orientation, and tuition in the basic ecological principles of the nation. It was the duty of midwives to confer citizenship, so when she had been informed that her community was due for new arrivals Neri had gone to meet them at Māngere. It was her turn, and although the refugees could have, in theory, been escorted by workers from the centre, in practice people from the new community were sent to them, so that the newcomers would feel welcomed from the beginning.
The little girl had worried her from the moment she set eyes on her.
“I’ve never seen a child so silent,” she said. And so still. The most movement Neri ever saw from her, unprompted, was the tightening of small arms around a stuffed kākāpō whenever someone got too close.
“You might have a bit of trouble with the water, there,” said Nyaring’s case worker.
“We’ll manage,” said Neri. “It wouldn’t be the first time.” Many of the refugees had reached the remainder of the UNHCR camps on boats, long and perilous journeys that frequently resulted in dehydration and death. It had left some of them suspicious of oceans, with a horror of water, and it was hard for her to comprehend the loss.
Sahir and his young son, 12 year old Syrus, had come the furthest – a long and painful journey from the obliterated remains of Damascus. They’d come south, the boat crowded and stinking and leaky, and on it there’d been a Sudanese family but the parents had died of starvation and their little girl left alone. She should have died, but Sahir had refused to allow it, for months had fed her most of his own meagre ration. “If it were my boy,” he said, “I would have wanted someone to help. She was only a child.”
It was the relationship between them that had caused the refugees to stay at Māngere a little longer than usual. It wasn’t just Sahir and the two children who were coming to Neri’s small seaside community. There was a mother and grandmother from Tuvalu who had a little boy in need of serious long-term medical support that their own floating nation could no longer supply; two orphaned teenage girls from flooded Bangladesh, an Eritrean man with his elderly parents. “I feel bad that we are keeping them back,” said Sahir, but “It’s not for long,” said Neri. “And it’s better for you all to travel together now you’ve got to know each other. That way you can share the ceremony.”
Nyaring had been placed with a couple Neri knew well – the woman a child psychologist, the man a paediatric nurse – who had successfully raised a child to responsible adulthood already and who had the experience to best help the little girl. Once they had visited Nyaring at the centre and realised her attachment to Sahir – and especially to Syrus – they had insisted on moving their household so that the two families would be neighbours. It meant a slightly longer stay in Māngere for the little group while housing was rearranged but no-one who knew Nyaring objected.
“It’ll be good for her to have an established support structure.”
“I’d take her myself if I could,” said Sahir, but he had one child to raise already, a new country to adapt to, and he was suffering himself from the effects of trauma and prolonged and severe malnutrition. Shifting the new family next door to the old was felt to be the best solution. “I’m sorry that they have to give up their old home.” It was a plaintive reminder that he had had to leave his own.
“Don’t be silly,” said Neri. “Nyaring is to be their daughter. There’s nothing they wouldn’t do to make her happy. A house move is the least of it.”
“You have already studied the ceremonies surrounding birth,” her instructor had said, and after her training was over Neri had performed them often enough. An infant’s naming ceremony, the acknowledgement of their right to citizenship, came with the first formal touch of sea water. “This ceremony is adapted for newcomers. For children, it is much the same. Those who are capable of understanding are asked to do their best and try hard, to undertake the responsibility of kindness and kinship with the ocean. In practice, though, that responsibility lies primarily with their care-givers who, as with birth citizens, have the task of teaching those values to the young person. But for adults who are becoming citizens, the ceremony is slightly different. They are capable of greater understanding, and this is reflected in the wording.”
Her hands were wet with sea water. Neri placed one palm on his forehead, the other over his heart. “Sahir of Syria,” she said, formal in her incantation. “You stand in the waters of our home. A community stands with you, willing to make it yours as well. You are welcome here. Our consent is freely given.
“With this citizenship you do not give up your first home. The ocean that surrounds Aotearoa stretches across the world, and our waters mix with the waters of other countries, other places.”
Perhaps one day he would return to his first home, help to put into practice the conservation skills he would learn in this one. Perhaps he never would. It didn’t really matter to Neri; that wasn’t her choice to make.
“Citizenship comes with responsibility as well as rights. Our country has learned, through hard experience and hard choices, that a community cannot be strong if its ecology is not. We are an island nation. The ocean is our shared origin. It is our shared responsibility; it is our only legacy. Do you understand and accept this belief? Will you hold to it as your own?”
“I will,” said Sahir. Neri could see him swallow hard, could feel him shaking under her hands but his voice was clear, and loud enough to be heard along the beach.
She pushed him down, gentle. “Then let the waters of our shared home witness your oath.” He was under for only a moment, and when he rose out of the water to stand again before her, she said the binding words. “By the power vested in me by position and community consent, I declare this man Sahir to be a citizen of Aotearoa.” Neri grinned at him. “Congratulations,” she said, giving him the first welcome embrace as the clapping began.
Citizenship was one of the duties of midwifery that had evolved away from the traditional responsibilities of birth. “Though of course it is a birth, in a way,” one of her instructors had said. “A rebirth at least, and metaphorical.”
The fall in birth rate, the firmly established responsibility of one-child families in a world defined by ecological devastation, had demographic consequences that were mitigated by migration, by the welcoming of refugees from countries whose ecology could no longer support them. Aotearoa had its own carrying capacity; and one country devoted to conservation, to the preservation of its own marine environment, could not take all comers – but it could take some. That was where the midwives came in.
“The people who come here will have different histories, different needs,” Neri had been taught. “But they will all, in some ways, be suffering from trauma. Even a difficult homeland is a home, and having to leave – even if it’s to ensure survival – is leaving not only a country but a culture. Ours will in many ways be a strange one to them,” and that strangeness was most often expressed in the priority given to conservation. There were two main reactions – those who fell into it easily, having seen the wastelands behind and wanting to work to ensure the future home would never suffer similarly. There were those, also, who had more difficulty adapting, who saw a new country and the ability to fulfil the dreams that had been so destructive and impossible in the old – a large family, a wasteful way of life. There had been difficulties – unfriendly reactions to those who came with multiple children, the fear that the national character would be influenced over generations, sent back to profligacy and overburdened ecology. Resentment from those who wanted more than one child themselves, and had curbed that wanting for the greater good. “Why should they have more children than us, when we’re the ones who are doing the right thing?” But it wasn’t a just a question of environmental irresponsibility. There was the acknowledgement, too, that many of those who had more than one child did so because of the lack of contraception available in conflict zones, or as a result of the high probability of sexual assault in the staggering, over-burdened camps. “We’re lucky here. We’ve got decent medical care, enough resources to ensure a peaceful home where people can be safe. We can’t punish others for not having those advantages.” “It’s not punishment to be selective. We know we can’t take everyone. So many people are displaced.” “We can’t stand by and do nothing. But we can’t forget that the only reason we can act now is because we made the decision, as a nation, to put ecology first. If we go back on that we’ll end up like everyone else – living in a wasteland, and all our oceans empty. They’re only just now beginning to recover.”
Before Neri’s own birth there had been discussions, symposia, the second great national debate after the Māori Queen and the Prime Minister had pushed through the first and enshrined conservation as a national – as the national – ideal. How to best balance welcoming refugees – people in desperate need of safe harbour – and the desire to prove, as a nation, a compassionate one against what had come to be seen as the primary duty of citizenry: conservation, and the protection of the oceans so dear to the interests of an island country.
The consensus, at the end, after neighbourhoods and iwi and community groups had had their say, was the protection of the most vulnerable individuals. It was a reflection of the concern for the most vulnerable environment, and the pairing was a popular one. “It felt right,” said Neri’s instructor. “Not perfect, but something everyone could live with.” The primary focus – though not the only one – was on children, on the many orphaned overseas by devastated ecology; by rising sea levels and lack of food, of clean water; by desertification and poison and sterility. The young could learn the most easily. They could be taught to love the ocean and the land in a way that would immunise them from the temptation to exploit it.
“Remember these people have been through a lot,” said the instructor. “It’s not your job as midwives to help them adjust to their new life, at least no more than an ordinary citizen. We all have that responsibility, and beyond that there are people trained to help with the specifics. With medical care and schooling and language lessons, for instance.
“Your job is ceremonial. Your job is to give the first sense of stability. There was a time when refugees remained non-citizens, often for years. We believe today that early citizenship helps to ensure a feeling of security, and allows the individual to develop from the beginning the understanding that they are a legitimate stakeholder in the ecology of the country. Furthermore, if this citizenship is taken up before the community, when the individual first becomes resident in that community, the citizenship ceremony is a public declaration that the newcomer has the same rights and responsibilities as the residents. Plus, you know, there’s usually a party.”
There was a party alright. Neri could see the balloons and welcome banners already set up in the park beside the beach. There was a barbecue ready to go, vegetable kebabs waiting to be grilled and the hāngi had nearly finished cooking in a freshly dug pit. Everyone had brought a plate – salads and cheeses and sweets, cakes with friendly messages piped onto them, the traditional sweet fish – honey now instead of the once usual chocolate, for honey was locally produced and could be easily sourced – and even a platter of smoked, for the sea was part of island life and it was the smoked fish that would be served at the beginning of the meal, small shreds offered to everyone but for this day the newcomers first.
The picnic tables had cloths draped over them to keep the insects off while the ceremony took place. There were chilly bins full of drinks and ice blocks for the heat, ginger beer and craft beer and cold white wine. There were umbrellas set up and blankets set out and she’d already seen Syrus eyeing up the cricket set some of the neighbourhood kids had brought along. There was a table of gifts as well, gifts from each household, to each new household. Books, toys, items useful for the new home. One man famed for his preserves had given a pretty box of jams and chutneys to each family; a woman known for her artistic ability had given paintings. A textiles club run out of the local marae had made quilts; Wiremu had quietly organised school uniforms and sports equipment. There was music too, although that had been turned off for the meantime for there was usually singing in the citizenship ceremony. Karanga and waiata, the new national anthem, songs from the past that had stayed popular – Welcome Home was a favourite, something everyone could sing to and it felt apt; Neri saw some of the people on the beach with their guitars, ready to participate.
Sahir in the water beside her, trembling. There were tears in his eyes. “You alright mate?” she said, under her breath.
“Yes,” he said. “Thank you.”
“It’s a good day for me as well,” Neri replied. “Thank you.”
The rest of the refugees followed, until only Nyaring was left. The little girl clung to her new mother, clearly unwilling to walk into the ocean.
“I think she’s afraid of the water.” Neri didn’t see the person who called out, only knew it was someone from the crowd and it was nothing that she hadn’t thought herself, watching the little face staring out at her, at Sahir and the other newcomers waiting in the waves, their own salt baptisms completed.
The crowd murmured, sympathetic. There’d been a neighbourhood meeting, before the refugees came, where all those who were to live near the newcomers were briefed on their origins and their journeys. It was a delicate balance, the preservation of privacy against the desire to have a useful support system in place, but Neri was grateful for it now. Nyaring would have to have the water over her to legally bind her belonging but there was no need to compound her trauma. The ocean was supposed to be a home instead of a reminder of harm done and gone. Frightening the child further would not encourage her to love it, and fear was anathema to conservation.
Sahir clutched at her arm. “She doesn’t want to come,” he said. “She’s only little. Please don’t make her.”
“Of course we won’t,” said Neri, shocked enough at the suggestion that words of explanation caught in her throat and wedged there like kina in a rocky crevice. Then Wiremu was wading up from the half-circle behind, and he set one big, hand on Sahir’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, brother,” he said. “We’re not such sticklers we can’t adapt for cause. Just move forward a bit, you’ll see.” He pushed gently, propelling Sahir forward and Neri flanked his other side, the three of them moving together until the water fell below their hips, below their thighs, below even their ankles. When they finally stopped it was at the edge of waves, still in the ocean if only the fringes of it, with salt water licking up against their heels, washing briefly over toes.
Neri watched the men and women and children behind her come forward as well, the half-circle of them come up close behind, their faces friendly as their bodies cut off the sight of waves, the wide expanse of water and horizon. She watched Sahir as well, saw his shoulders loosen as he understood, as he watched the support behind and in front for the crowd on the beach was moving in closer too, surrounding the little girl and her new family, close enough to offer small words of encouragement but careful not to overwhelm her.
Grunting, Wiremu knelt in front of the child, drenched in salt water from the shoulders down and the wet sand squelched beneath him. “Kia kaha, little one,” he said. “That’s a very nice bird you’ve got there. Does he have a name?”
Nyaring just stared at him, but Wiremu waited, patient in the ocean. The little girl looked at Sahir then, at her foster brother, and finally twisted her head up towards her mother, shrinking back against the woman’s dress.
“She doesn’t feel like talking yet,” said Syrus. He’d been standing close by, dark curls plastered to his head. He had a smudge of sand on one cheek. “But she’s still thinking about a name. He doesn’t have one yet.”
Wiremu nodded, his face solemn. “Names take a lot of thinking about. It’s a serious thing, to give a name to a friend.” He leaned forward a little, so that Nyaring would know his words were for her. “You are right to take your time.”
Neri knelt down beside him. “May we see your friend?” she said. “We’d like to say hello.” She’d met the toy before, been allowed to stroke him on the long trip from the refugee centre. “I think you’d like him,” she said to Wiremu, conversational.
“I’m sure I would.”
“Never met a bird he didn’t like!” someone called from the beach, and laughter rippled round. “Least we can be sure this one won’t end up in the pot!”
“Don’t pay any attention, moko,” Wiremu said, laughing himself. “They’re just jealous because they don’t have a fine big kākāpō like you do. He must be very brave too, to be here with you.”
“Did you know that kākāpō don’t like water much either?” said Neri. “They can still swim a little if they have to, though.”
“I knew a kākāpō once who saw his human friends swimming and jumped right in after them!” said Wiremu. “They must have looked like they were having fun for him to join them like that.”
“He must have been a very brave kākāpō,” said Sahir. “Brave like Syrus, to go into the water when he wasn’t used to it.”
It seemed like those were the magic words, thought Neri, for if Nyaring didn’t love the ocean yet she did love Syrus, who was the only other person Neri had ever seen who was allowed to hold the kākāpō. Nothing Syrus did could ever be bad, and the stuffed feathery head began to surface, peeking out from two little arms.
“There he is, eh?” said Wiremu. “What a handsome kākāpō! Just look at him, staring at me, making sure that everything is safe for you. I knew that he was brave.”
Nyaring nodded, hesitating.
“Would you like him to go first, Nyaring?” said Neri. “That way the two of you will belong together and no-one can ever take either of you away. You will be home together.” The little girl still looked sceptical, so she kept talking. “He won’t have to go all the way under the water. We’ll just sprinkle a little over his head. Just because he is a brave kākāpō doesn’t mean he has to be very brave kākāpō all at once.”
“You can hold him while they do it,” said Syrus. “Can’t she?”
One of the women standing behind Neri had a polished pāua shell hanging around her neck. She dipped it in the water and passed the shell forward. When Nyaring held out the kākāpō a little way, still looking only half-convinced, Neri smiled at her. “Do you promise to look after your kākāpō?” she said. “Do you promise to raise him to be a good kākāpō, to help him to work and learn, and will you teach him that he is only a part of the world and that every part of it is important?” It was not quite the same as she had said for the others, but she wanted to make sure that the little girl got the gist of it correctly, that she felt the early responsibility of kindness and conservation.
When Nyaring nodded, Neri held the pāua over the stuffed toy and let a little, a very little seawater trickle down over the plush head. “There,” she said. “By the power vested in me by position and community, I declare that this kākāpō is a citizen of Aotearoa, that he belongs to us and that this is his home for as long as he wants it and that no-one can take him away from it ever.”
For a moment she worried that the response wouldn’t come, or if it did there would be a fake solemnity that Nyaring would hear beneath the surface – something that would discomfort her and make her think that people were making fun. It was a foolish worry, for the smiles and clapping came as quickly for the little toy as it had for the people, and underneath was nothing but compassion and hopeful expectation.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she said. “Would you like me to do you now?”
When the little girl nodded, Neri held the pāua shell over her head. She said the words and the water trickled down and when it was done Nyaring heard nothing but cheering.
Neri heard differently. Wiremu had heaved himself to his feet, caked in sand from the knees down, and he helped her up, stood by her as she returned the pāua shell necklace to its owner, with thanks. “That’s your job done then,” he said, as they watched the crowd on the beach surround the new community members with congratulations and shepherd them towards the welcome feast that waited, steaming, above the high tide line. “Now it’s our turn.”
“Nation Building and Baptism” (© Octavia Cade) was published in Issue 10 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.