“You’re not a refugee, you’re very smart”
July 23, 2019
Hope Burmeister tells the story of Joseph Ishak, a war soldier, to Joseph Painter, a Wellington business owner
“Who came to New Zealand first? James Cook?” asks Joseph. His daughter Mariana Ishak and I agree but it wasn’t. It was a Dutch man who came first, he says with a distinct accent. Joseph Ishak has a silver beard and no hair, constantly joking about being known as ‘baldy’. Wearing a comfortable striped shirt and jeans, he talks with a humble smile and a belly laugh, never taking life too seriously. He leans back into the couch and takes a gulp from a can of beer.
He recalls regularly walking into a bar after work in the early 90’s, asking Kiwi men questions about New Zealand. These are men of all kinds of ethnicities; Jewish, Maori, Kiwi. Some of them are very rich, lawyers, Members of Parliament. They call him a refugee every time they see him. Tired of their conversations about drinking and work, he cracks a few jokes and teaches them more about their own country and beyond. “You know what, New Zealand people are nice but you’ve got something boring in your life,” he says to them.
He asks them what they know about New Zealand but they shrug. Joseph teaches them about Babylon, Nineveh and that their language comes from Europe. When he next comes to the bar, he sits down with a newspaper intending to drink and read quietly.
However, the group of men call him over and want to talk to him. They want to know more about the world. Joseph tells him he is 7000 years old and the Kiwi man is 130 years old. This man is eager to know everything he can about both his own country and Assyria. He finally says to him, “Joseph, you’re not a refugee. You’re very smart”.
Joseph Ishak (62) is a refugee, but is also a business owner. He is from Assyria but is also from Wellington. Forty-three years ago, he was living in Assyria and forced to fight in a war he could not fight in. He points to the window and says, when he kills a fly in his house, he feels the guilt. This is said with a little laugh but a serious tone. Every time he does it, he has to apologise to that little fly.
In 1976, Joseph begins his service as a soldier in the Iraq-Iran war. He serves for over 12 years, mainly at the front line. Over a million lives are lost in the war. There are 83,000 soldiers his age and only 5000 survivors. Joseph is one of them. He says he remembers blood everywhere, every day.
His house is immaculately tidy, candles in the centre of each coffee table. There is a mirror as you walk in with a large, orange butterfly at the top. In one part of the lounge, fitted in the wall, is a striking figure of Jesus in coloured robes. One hand is pointing to his deep-red heart and the other is outstretched, with a beaded rosary resting on his palm. It stands out among all other items, even though it is nestled in the corner of the room. Joseph says that during the combat, all he did, all he could do, was pray to God for the war to stop.
When I ask him to recall the worst days of combat, he responds, “do you want to cry?”. In the middle of Iraq, it is sweltering hot he wishes the night would come. Hiding behind a barricade with other soldiers, the Iranians are about to cross through the border. Many soldiers have already fallen when the general orders for anyone still alive to shoot. Joseph stands up with the gun in his hand, but already knows he can’t shoot. There is no way he can shoot another human. While every bullet is pelting down on them, he puts his gun on the ground. He is a soldier in the front line of a war who pretends to shoot or drops his weapon altogether.
After the story is told, he and his daughter Mariana Ishak talk to each other in their own language. After a moment, she translates back to me in her New Zealand accent. She says her father would have been killed if they found out he wasn’t shooting anyone. They would consider him useless, shoot him and bring the bullet to his family to make them pay for it. Today, she can’t fathom that it really happened to him, as all the stories “sounds like a movie.” It is common for other Assyrian refugees, or any other veterans for that matter, to not talk about their time in the war.
When Mariana was growing up, Joseph told her many stories about his time in the war, no matter how gruesome. These are stories about bombs exploding, being shot in the back, sleeping underground with snakes and scorpions and seeing innocent lives lost. “No matter what age I was, he was always really open about it,” she says.
Joseph brings out the photo of the workers in his Wellington business, Joseph Painter, established in the mid nineteen fifties. This was part of an award he won twelve years ago, words below exclaiming, ‘We are proud to be part of the overall winner project’. The yellow background around the text and photo seems to stick out. The men are gathered in two lines, the back standing straight, some with their arms crossed and those in front are crouching down. The photo is captured outside a plain white house and they are all wearing bright yellow overalls with white paint splatters on the front.
Joseph gets up from the couch and stands at the photo before me. He points out one of the men: “This guy here is now 17 years with me. He bought two houses and he come from zero.”
He points to the next one: “This guy here, he’s one of the best painters in New Zealand. He’s 18 years with me and now he’s started working for himself. He bought a house.”
“This guy here, he bought maybe two, three houses now.”
“This guy here, no good. But it’s just not for him.”
He sits back down in the couch, urging that it’s not about them but about their children. Joseph wants the parents to be able to afford a laptop and for their children to go to university so they can become intelligent and pursue whatever they want to be, even a doctor or a lawyer.
Red Cross social worker Sargon Warde is part of the Wellington Assyrian community and says Joseph is known as “Joseph Painter”, his business name. As there is more than one Joseph in the community, it is his unique nickname. Everyone knows who he is. He is known to help many Assyrian and other refugees start a career. Not a lot of Assyrian refugees in Wellington are currently employed. They come into New Zealand. A lot of them will be young and keen to work but don’t know how to speak English. Joseph gives many refugees the chance to learn manual labour and basic English so they can start a life in New Zealand. “He’s been one of the most successful business people in the Assyrian community in Wellington”, he says.
Looking back at his life is not the same as how New Zealanders might view theirs. A typical Kiwi looks at their life and seeks to get a good job and earn lots of money. Joseph tells me that this long painting of an eye in a wooden frame is important to his story. It sits there opposite us in the middle of a skinny wall. It is there below a brown cuckoo clock with birds and flowers sticking up from it, lathered in smooth, brown paint. Below is a bare wooden table.
I ask what the picture is about and he stands and explains the meaning in detail. His sister back in Iraq painted it at his request. There are three segments to the image. He points to the middle where a single fat eye stares you down. It is there, searching, desiring all the money it can get. On either side of it is two choices it can make with the money falling before it. On the left is a dead tree, with its faintly drawn, skinny branches reaching out.
The wealthy person never grew anything special. “You cannot take your money with you when you pass away,” he explains. However, on the right is a clear stretch of a bright green, healthy field next to a small stream. He says the money is lying at the bottom of the stream since they don’t really have any of it. But there are two people standing together at a distance, enjoying each other’s company, enjoying their family, above all else.