With shoot-to-kill orders in place at the border in Eritrea, Ibrahim Omer had a tough choice to make when he fled to Sudan in 2003. He was escaping a repressive regime under which he couldn't have become a politician - a childhood dream he is living now.
As New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern created history with her resounding election history last week, Ibrahim Omer, a first-time member of parliament from Ms Ardern’s Labour Party, also made history by becoming the first African-Kiwi to become an MP.
Born and raised in Eritrea, Mr Omer says he always wanted to be a politician. But he had to escape conscription by a repressive regime in his home country and spent years in a refugee camp in Sudan before arriving in New Zealand In 2008.
“In Eritrea, there is no opportunity to peruse 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,” Mr Omer told SBS Tigrinya.
- Ibrahim Omer escaped Eritrea in 2003 where he was conscripted as a soldier.
- He was resettled in New Zealand in 2008 when he was facing deportation to Eritrea after he was detained by the Sudanese authorities on the suspicion that he was a spy.
- Mr Omer says he wants to focus on the issues faced by the refugee and migrant communities, particularly racism.
With less than $30 a month pay at the time, he knew, he would spend his whole life as a soldier. He thought his only option was to flee his home country.
“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 says explaining the dangers he faced when fleeing Eritrea.
After escaping his homeland, he spent five years in a refugee camp in Sudan where he worked as an interpreter before being detained because the authorities suspected he was a spy.
He faced real prospects of being deported to Eritrea when the UNHCR intervened he was resettled in New Zealand in 2008 through a humanitarian program.
He says despite his work as an interpreter in Sudan, the first challenge he faced was the English language. So, he had to take up a low-paid job to pay for his tuition and support his family back home.
"When I arrived in New Zealand, I had a dream to study, but as a refugee from a poor country, I had to support my family back home, and so I started a cleaning job with a minimum wage at a University," Mr Omer recalls.
While he worked as a cleaner, he was sent to represent the workers at an election campaign meeting for a city council election in Wellington in 2014.
During this meeting, he had an opportunity to speak to the gathering.
“We, as many of you do, have dreams to learn and persue our dreams but because we start from scratch, we cannot learn and have a better future,” he told the crowd.
Many politicians who were present at the meeting encouraged him to take an active role in politics, and he got the opportunity to take part in the ‘power build training’ course.
“After completing the training, my perspective about life changed forever,” he says.
Through their support and encouragement, he enrolled at University and studied political science and international studies, but also started to become active in politics by connecting with Labour’s volunteer groups – knocking doors and making calls during election campaigns.
“I participated in all meetings and campaigns; I never said no for any call from the party.”
In 2017, when Jacinda Ardern was vying for the country’s leadership, Mr Omer with other volunteers, worked day and night on her campaign. He invited Ms Ardern to speak at a meeting of women from refugee communities – making vital political connections in the process.
In last week’s election, Ms Ardern has returned to power in a landslide victory. With 49 per cent of the vote, the Labour Party has secured its greatest level of support in 50 years, and Mr Omer is among 64 labour MPs to be elected to the 120-member parliament of New Zealand.
As a union man, he played a strong role in the Living Wage movement and wants to focus on issues that refugees and migrants face.
Looking back at his struggles, Mr Omer says no challenge is too big. And he says, if he can do it, anyone can.
“I am not a special person. If you work very hard, despite your background, there is always an opportunity out there.”