Orphee Mickalad arrived in New Zealand from the Democratic Republic of Congo 15 years ago. Currently, as a councillor for Palmerston North, he is the first former refugee to be elected to a local body in NZ. He spoke to Indian Weekender of the trials he faced along the way. Extracts:

Q. Have the racial slurs you faced deterred you from running for a second term as councillor?
A. Not at all. If anything, it has made me stronger. Being the first former refugee to be elected to the local body has given inspiration to many migrants and former refugees who look up to me as a role model. I encourage them to stand up and not be deterred by the racism and challenges they face, because it’s only a minority in our communities that are racist.

To be honest, I was a bit disheartened when I saw my billboards being defaced. People were drawing monkey signs and swastikas on my billboards, and telling me to go back to my own country. My strategy around that was to not focus on those negativities because that would only discourage me from getting to my goal. The only thing I needed to do was focus on issues that impact the community such as housing, infrastructure and so on. Whenever my billboards were defaced, I just replaced them with new ones and moved on.

It’s only small pockets of people in NZ who are not tolerant of people who look different from them, and are not comfortable with people who look like me running for public office and actually winning and being able to serve as a city councillor.

Q. It’s all very well to say racists are a minority. But they are a vocal, toxic minority. What is the best remedy to neutralise their effect in public life?
A. I think you’re right in saying that. In previous interviews I’ve always said that it’s a minority. But you’re right, it’s a very loud and toxic minority, to the point that you probably think there are many of them. But actually, they are only a few. I’ve never believed in violence. I endorse the Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi type of non-violent approach and having people  come to the debating table and wanting to have an open conversation about it and try to understand why those persons think the way they think. Education is the most important thing we can do to combat racism. The more we censor those voices, the louder they become and the more people join them, as we have seen in the United States under Donald Trump, for example. The more you try to silence them, the more you infuriate people and inflame the problem.

Q. What are your strategies to combat racism?
A. I’ve proposed that the council has an action plan that involves including more brown faces, not just Pakeha faces, in marketing campaigns and billboards to normalise the fact that we are becoming more diverse. And also by educating the public through booklets, posters and dropping leaflets as well as having public sessions around cultural diversity and awareness. Of course, there’s no silver bullet to solve the problem.

We all face different forms of racism. The racism I may face today is different from what a Jew or an Indian or Maori or Pasifika person may experience.

I think education is the most potent of options that we have available. The older generation (who are now in their 70s and 80s) went to school with people that only looked like them, all white. But now we have a generation of young people who go to school – Indians, Maoris, Pasifikas - these children are colour blind. The new generation we are raising at the moment are the hope and the future because they don’t look at colour any more

Q. Do you plan to run for Parliament?
A. God willing, yes. That is definitely one of my goals. I’ve always believed that public policy is the most effective way of enacting change in society. I’ve seen petitions submitted to Parliament and those petitions have gone nowhere because the MP is not willing to push them. It is important to be able to influence policy and decision making to improve outcomes for migrants and refugees, which is my focus area.