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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children

A basis for tolerance

page 215

A basis for tolerance

I am the son of a Polish refugee mother and an Anglo-Saxon New Zealand father. So it is indeed fitting that, being the son of a refugee, I find myself working as an immigration and refugee lawyer to help other refugees and immigrants settle into New Zealand.

My earliest childhood memories are of my mother preparing delicious hot Polish meals and Kiwi roasts on Sundays, and caring for us while my father was away at work. She was the mainstay of the family. She nurtured us, taught us decency and compassion for others, and told us stories about Poland, her motherland. Hearing about peacetime Poland filled me with excitement but her stories of World War II shocked me. I wondered how she had managed to cope after losing her family in such tragic circumstances.

Our mother is a special person in many ways. She was different from the mothers of the other boys at school and I liked her ways much more than those of my friends. Whenever we were ill or hurt, she spoiled us and sometimes let us miss school longer than we really needed to. You could feel her warmth in the home and I liked to listen to her speaking Polish on the telephone.

I found that I understood other races more easily. I could easily relate to boys of Dutch descent and couldn't comprehend the parochial attitude of some of my contemporaries. Even in the face of adversity, our mother always insisted on tolerance, a virtue that I will always cherish.

I sometimes get asked whether I am Russian. My appearance suggests I have Eastern European blood and I am proud to tell people that I am half Polish. I have met a few other half-Polish New Zealanders over the years and found plenty to talk about. But not knowing Polish, I always felt like I didn't really belong to the Polish community. Neither do I feel I am a true Kiwi, whatever that is.

It must have been difficult for my mother to raise us with a knowledge and understanding of the Polish culture and language. My father did not speak Polish for a start. Our mother showed us pictures of Poland but I could not relate to Poland and so my "Polishness" became something inherent but non-interactive.

When I began socialising with members of the opposite sex, I found Kiwi girls the most difficult to get along with. There was nothing wrong with them but they spoke, acted and behaved differently to the way my mother would. page 216I began to seek out girls who possessed the warmth that my mother has and frequently these individuals were themselves migrants to New Zealand, though not necessarily Polish.

Many New Zealanders are not at all familiar with Poland and being half Polish sometimes had an isolating effect on me. I can recall blank looks from many people when the subject of Poland came up. Often they did not want to know about Poland and when it came to bonding with other Kiwis, I found I had less in common with them because of who I am.

Paul Coates graduates with a law degree in 2004 and is pictured with his proud mother Irena Coates (Ogonowska)

Paul Coates graduates with a law degree in 2004 and is pictured with his proud mother Irena Coates (Ogonowska)

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