Eritrean Ibrahim Omer is the first-ever African-origin Member of Parliament to be elected in New Zealand where he moved to from a refugee camp in Sudan.
Ibrahim Omer has become the first African-origin member of Parliament in New Zealand after Saturday’s general election.
The 42-year-old Eritrean represents Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party, who romped to victory giving her political party its biggest win in the last half-century.
Given his extraordinary journey from being living in a refugee camp, to being a sitting politician in parliament in New Zealand, Omer described his election as an MP as a huge privilege which comes with huge responsibility.
“This is a collective victory for all of us,” he explained. “People have put their faith in me and I don’t take that for granted. I will work hard.”
He promised to “fight for people in the positions he has been in to have better opportunities for a decent life" during his campaigns, and dedicated his new role promotion to “ the low paid workers" and "former refugees".
Here is how this tremendous journey came to pass.
Escaping from Eritrea to Sudan
Born and raised in Eritrea, Omer had always wanted to be a politician. His home country’s repressive regime, however, forced him to flee Sudan.
“In Eritrea, there is no opportunity to pursue any political activities. Instead, in 2000, I was recruited to become a soldier for an indefinite period. After completing the military training, I was stationed in the trenches around the border with Ethiopia until I left Eritrea in 2003 and became a refugee in Sudan,” Omer told SBS Tigrinya.
“There was a shoot to kill policy on the border by the regime, I had very limited options, either to be shot, or get arrested and spend years in underground or metal shipping containers, or make it safe to Sudan,” he explained to Amnesty International.
Between 2003 and 2008, Omer lived as a refugee in Sudan and then as an interpreter in United Nations-run refugee camps.
He was detained after accusations of espionage, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees intervened, prompting his subsequent relocation to New Zealand in 2008.
“It was at this crucial moment of my life New Zealand came asking for any special cases, luckily I got accepted, that was the day that changed my life. If it wasn’t for this wonderful country I would be languishing somewhere in an underground prison in a desert.”
After arriving in the country, Omer wanted to realise his dream of studying. He took up a cleaning job on minimum wage in order to help fund his dream.
It was at this time that he first stepped into politics: such were his strong feelings about employment and the Living Wage Movement, he was sent to represent workers by his colleagues at an election campaign for a city council election in Wellington in 2014.
He found an opportunity to speak to people. After the meeting, an impression had been left: other present politicians approached him and encouraged him to take an active role in politics. The seed had been sown.
At the same time, he had begun a Politics and International Relations degree at Victoria University, a course he funded through his full-time role as a cleaning supervisor.
His growing political motivation also began to increase due to his attendance of Labour Party volunteer groups, for which he knocked on doors and made calls on behalf of his party's election campaign.
“I participated in all meetings and campaigns; I never said no for any call from the party.”
Now, his story has come full circle. Omer is today a member of the Labour Party that is not just in power but governing with a large majority.
“I am not a special person. If you work very hard, despite your background, there is always an opportunity out there.”