How an East African refugee working 80 hours a week cleaning became an MP in New Zealand

AS a child in the East African country of Eritrea, Ibrahim Omer wanted to be either a footballer or a politician.

But when dictatorship took hold of his once tolerant country and he saw how politicians could ruin people’s lives he gave up on becoming one.

‘I vividly remember the fighting. There was no power, there was very little food, the city was surrounded by the fighters for many, many months.’

In his maiden speech to Parliament, Omer detailed his perilous journey from fleeing Eritrea to becoming a Member of Parliament and New Zealand’s first African MP.

Omer said he was drafted to Eritrea’s national service as a high school student and suffered extreme hardships for what was supposed to be 18 months – but in reality it was indefinite.

He decided to leave behind everything he loved and fled to neighbouring Sudan across a border which had a shoot-to-kill policy for deserters, preferring the option to die trying rather than die a slow death.

Omer made it to a United Nations camp where he stayed for five years before coming to New Zealand.

‘I had never heard of this place, if I’m honest. But an immigration officer told me it was one of the most peaceful places in the world.

‘That was good enough for me because I was sick and tired of looking over my shoulder.’

Omer picked up minimum-wage jobs, sometimes working more than 80 hours a week to pay the bills and sent money to his family back home. One job was as a security guard before he was attacked and beaten in the middle of the night.

He became a cleaner and worked day and night, sacrificing having a life and being part of his community, he said.

Omer became involved in the Living Wage Movement through his union and got a pay rise which meant he could go to Victoria University to study politics and international relations.

On the Sunday night before his first lecture, he cleaned the theatre he would soon be sitting in as a student.

After studying, he became an E Tū union organiser and this year entered Parliament as number 41 on Labour’s list.

In his speech, Omer promised to represent the New Zealanders who are struggling on low wages.

‘They work hard, they work very long hours and yet they still struggle to provide three meals for their kids.’

Omer said he wanted to see every worker be able to live their lives with dignity.

‘I’m a son, brother, a friend, I’m a Muslim, I’m a former refugee, I’m a trade unionist and living wage activist.’

Omer had a raucous standing ovation after his speech, including from his friend and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson, who sat in the seat in front of him as he spoke to the House.

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