News | 21 December 2021

Refugee helping others find homes in Pōneke

From couch surfing around the city to being a Wellington City Housing tenant, Sebastian Abril Hernandez now helps others in need find homes.

A clean cut young man with tidy short dark hair, wearing a nice bright blue blazer and blue reading glasses, sitting on a light grey couch.

Over a thousand people arrive in New Zealand each year as refugees. Eleven years ago, Sebastian was one of those refugees. He came from Colombia to reunite with his mother, after five years apart.

Escaping conflict

When Sebastian left Colombia it was – and still is – in the middle of multiple civil conflicts, rife with problems with politics and drugs. Sebastian’s mother fled to Ecuador when he was 14, then fought for them to be re-settled together safely. Eventually, they would be reunited here in New Zealand. 

Five years on from their initial separation and speaking no English, Sebastian arrived at the Māngere refugee centre near Auckland. There, he started to learn English and about New Zealand culture and history.

“I got to know all sorts of people from all over the world – Pakistan, Iraq and others. Some stories were so much worse than mine. Yet, everyone was so welcoming and friendly. Being there was such a humbling experience.”

A happy young man wearing glasses and university graduation cap and gown, being kissed on either cheek by a woman with blond hair and white fluffy coat and a dark haired woman in black clothing, in front of a large dark green Vic Uni sign.

Starting over

Sebastian and his mother were re-settled in Lower Hutt where he found work in the hospitality industry in the central city. However, transport challenges and unsociable working hours made living in the Hutt difficult. Sebastian often found himself couch surfing in the city after work or staying at a backpackers while seeking alternative housing, working long hours to make ends meet.

A turning point

When Sebastian applied for social housing with Wellington City Housing it was another turning point in his life. He became a tenant at one of the Council complexes and thrived in his new home.

“It was an amazing time. I loved living there. It was convenient for study and work, and I am sure it helped me get better marks. Living in Council housing got me back on my feet.”

For four years, Sebastian lived right in the centre of the city. The stability and convenience enabled him to balance work with study. In that time, he completed a Bachelor in Hospitality Management and an Executive Masters in Business Administration. He worked his way up, managed big catering contracts and events, and started a career in marketing for a well-known venue in Wellington.

During his academic journey Sebastian developed a passion for bringing people together, “helping communities build bridges of exchange and meaningful connections".

A man wearing cap and sunglasses with his arm around a woman, kissing her on her head, as they stand beside a road and buildings.
Sebastian on arrival in Aotearoa.

Giving back

When Covid-19 hit, event venues were severely affected and Sebastian found himself in need of a more stable job during the pandemic. When he saw the advert for someone to join City Housing as a Tenancy Advisor, he knew he had to apply. It was an opportunity to join a small team, dedicated to the ongoing welfare of tenants. 

Now Sebastian gives others in need a helping hand to find their home and place in the city.

"This job to me is about giving a chance to people who need it.  Those who, like me, have been disadvantaged in one way or another. A healthy and safe home is essential to be able to safely support themselves and their whānau."

Sebastian is very humble about how far he has come from being a non-English speaking, 19-year-old refugee arriving in New Zealand.

“I am grateful when it was suggested I share my story. After giving it some thought, I understand that representation for our refugee and social housing communities is important. This really is not about me, but I am glad I can help.

"There are so many incredible people who continue to do amazing mahi for our whānau and our city. I want to continue to help people and my heart is in the right place. There is more to come. Watch this space!” 

Did you know?

  • More than 82.4 million people around the world have fled their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations. 26.4 million have fled their country, and nearly half are aged 18 years or under (for more information visit United Nations Refugee Agency).
  • Wellington City Housing is one of the biggest providers of social housing in New Zealand, providing warm, dry homes to more than 3,500 people on low incomes, in a mix of 1,900 houses and units.
  • Consultation on options to ensure the future financial sustainability and affordability of City Housing takes place in 2022.
  • For more information about the Council’s social housing visit City Housing.
  • For information on Wellington City Council’s key focus areas for housing in Pōneke visit Wellington’s Housing Strategy and Action Plan.