Inspired by Max Adam’s original work, Unquiet Women, through this series Dr Hafsa Ahmed aims to share narratives of remarkable women who immigrated to New Zealand. These stories are rarely told, but each one is unique. Hafsa hopes these stories will bring Asia closer to New Zealand by enabling us to see through the eyes of others and nurturing connections.
In the sixth piece of the Unquiet Women series, she shares Thelma Trono Bell's story.
Thelma Trono Bell became the first Filipino-born member of New Zealand's local government when she won a local body election in 2016 and served as a councillor for Ashburton District Council from 2016 to 2019. But if Thelma hadn’t changed her mind in 1987, Aotearoa would have certainly lost a colourful gem.
A young 23-year-old Thelma was holidaying in Germany after taking her nutrition and dietetics licensure board exam. She then had the option to stay in Germany with her mum, but her sisters convinced her to come to Aotearoa, where they were living - “New Zealand is better” her sisters said.
Thelma was soon packing her bags to come to Aotearoa – “in Germany, the television programmes, movies, newspapers were all in German. I will need to learn their language from the scratch, but I reckoned New Zealand is a much better option for me as we used English in the Philippines as a medium of instruction at schools and in tertiary, so I came to New Zealand.”
As she spoke about her arrival in New Zealand in the summer of 1987, Thelma blushed when she spoke about the early days in Canterbury at her sister’s place - “that’s where the love story started” – her love story with her husband.
It all started when she was introduced to Brian, a Kiwi bloke born and bred in Ashburton, and the pair exchanged telephone numbers. Brian married Thelma in 1989 and together they moved to Ashburton. Her friends and family tried to convince her to move back to Ōtautahi Christchurch for better opportunities, but she loved it in Ashburton.
Thelma recalls she would hardly see any Filipinos back then in Ashburton. However, her strongest memory is of people wearing “dark coloured clothes – brown, black or grey.” Coming from the Philippines, she was used to bright colours, florals, but here she wondered where were the pinks, yellows and reds. It all seemed gloomy.
What Thelma loved about New Zealand was the peace and security it offered. She had seen the contrast to this in the south of the Philippines where it wasn’t uncommon to see bombings and kidnappings. As she recollected these memories, she said “you don't know when you're going to be targeted or you'll be just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But here I can sleep soundly - that yes, I'm OK, and tomorrow it's going to be another good day.” Thelma’s most significant appreciation of the sense of security she found in New Zealand was when she stated “I can swing around my handbag while walking on the streets without being snatched by snatcher and I can wear jewellery that I'm sure when I get home, it will still be sitting there.”
Sharing about her life in Ashburton, Thelma started taking every opportunity to make friends “I'm always creating friendships here and there and that's how I became, I suppose aware of the needs of the people around me, not just the migrants but also some Kiwi friends who are in need and enjoy our company.” She strongly advises other Filipinos she meets by encouraging them to make friends outside the Filipino community – “we need to spread our wings, we need to reach out to other people.”
As time passed, Thelma began building more connections in the Ashburton community through the mums-to-be group, playgroup, school parents’ group, local church and volunteering at her kids’ school and sports group. “Standing on the sidelines with other mums – you chat with each other, carpool to take kids to different places for sports, ballet, girl guides - it is that simple,” she said.
Through her church, she built her leadership because she could see many members of the Filipino community coming forward for help – she would often take on the pastoring role for some of them and “my wings started to grow then.”
While being in local politics came with its challenges for Thelma, she learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed her experience. Thelma compared the local politics here to that of the Philippines by appreciating the transparency of decision-making here in Aotearoa. Lots of reading materials and meetings were part of her schedule, but what she enjoyed most were the NZ Citizenship ceremonies she attended as a councillor – “that's the time I met proud migrants who just officially became Kiwis.” She felt honoured to be able to have a migrant voice at the table during the years she served as a councillor. Even outside of the council, Thelma has become the go-to person for various migrant matters in Ashburton.
She says the landscape of Ashburton is becoming more diverse with migrants from South America to India. She believes migrants bring colour to the communities through food, customs and traditions.
Thelma is currently the chair of Multi-Cultural Bite - an annual festival that brings flavours of the world to Ashburton and showcases the diversity of Ashburton. She said, “people are really looking forward to it each year and that's the time that the locals are really embracing the migrant community – which is really good.”
Thelma also volunteers her time by reaching out to schools to share Filipino culture, history, and traditions. Teaching Filipino students their language and history is what gives her most joy as she experiences how proud the kids feel. She reflects that the Filipino culture shares similarities with Māori culture such as hierarchy in families - the authority of the grandparents followed by the parents and then the oldest child, as well as their languages, eating with their hands and perhaps some legends and myths.
Thelma is grateful for being in New Zealand and considers it a blessing. She shares her vision for the future where she would like “lots of migrants who will raise their hands up and do so many things. There are so many aspects that are beautiful in New Zealand, opportunities are never-ending.” She invites all migrants to embrace the safety and beauty of Aotearoa by being good contributing citizens.
- Asia Media Centre