Jorge Sandoval at home in the Wairarapa. (Photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

Kiwi Legend: The Chilean refugee who became a New Zealand cycling star

Our new series produced by the New Zealand Red Cross profiles people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home. Our first Kiwi Legend: Jorge Sandoval, who fled Pinochet’s Chile for a new life in the Hutt Valley.

It’s November 1988 and competitors in the Vuelta Ciclista de Chile (Chilean cycling race) are jostling for a position as they approach finish line for the 11th stage which ended up in the city of Concepción. This is a huge event for the region and massive crowds are waiting for them, along with journalists from all over the globe.

But at the finish line the journalists don’t gather around the winners, instead the camera start flashing at and focusing on the man who has placed 11th, Jorge Sandoval. He’s embracing a man and a woman and all three of them have tears streaming down their faces.

It was an emotional moment captured by international media, although few knew what they were watching.

Only 15 years earlier Jorge had been teenager attending Liceo de Tome, his local high school. He was part of a student movement at his college when there was a military coup and Augusto Pinochet assumed power, a position he’d hold for almost two decades.

“The military arrested a lot of people [after the coup] and killed and tortured people,” he explains. “I was arrested a month after the military took power in in a group of nine people.”

Jorge was arrested in his own house, in front of his little brother and parents. The date still sticks in his mind – 11 October 1973. For the next nine days he was held captive and tortured before being sent to a nearby concentration camp where he spent 12 months.

Eventually Jorge was released under house arrest but knew that if there was any unrest he would be among the first to be arrested and sent back to the concentration camp. Unable to face this he made a daring escape to Argentina, but it meant leaving his family behind.

“At the time it was one of the most painful experiences that I’d had in my life, having to leave for a second time my home and my parents and try to make it on my own in a country where I didn’t know anybody.”

Jorge Sandoval at home in the Wairarapa. (Photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

He approached the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Red Cross for help when he made it to Argentina. The then 18-year-old was registered as a refugee and accepted for resettlement in New Zealand two years later.

It was a bittersweet moment for Jorge who wouldn’t see his parents for another 13 years.

“I realised years later that for me it was more traumatic to come to New Zealand and try to live here than when I was in a concentration camp,” he reflects.

“For me to come to this country that I didn’t know anything about – I didn’t know anybody, I couldn’t speak the language, I couldn’t go to the shops, I couldn’t socialise with other people. It was very traumatic and on top of this not being able to have family around me was very sad for me.”

This isolation from his family was compounded by the fact that he and his wife at the time had two daughters of their own and Jorge couldn’t ask his parents for advice on parenting. He was determined to make a new life for himself in New Zealand though and soon found a job at a joinery firm in Petone, just outside Wellington.

“In the first couple of weeks I would catch the train [to work] and end up in Porirua because if you can’t speak the language you don’t know where trains go,” he reminisces.

“But then you start getting used to it, begin to speak a little bit of English, start meeting a few people. For us, as soon as I got a job it made things much easier for us.”

Jorge decided soon after his arrival in New Zealand that he wouldn’t tell people about his background as a refugee.

“I found that as soon as I said the word refugee, people reacted in a funny way,” he said.

“Over the years I’ve seen that the mentality has changed though. For me it was very rewarding when I lived in Hutt Valley, for example, to see new refugees playing in the parks and mixing with the locals and trying to have a go in a new country. I think a lot has changed since the 1970s.”

A cycling career

Jorge grew up in a town called Tomé, 30kms south from Concepción. He remembers his childhood fondly, both his parents were factory workers and although they weren’t rich, they never went without food.

“We had a lot of love from our parents, my father was always with us doing things that we liked to do,” says Jorge with a smile. “We were four brothers going fishing, hunting, going to the farms.”

It was during his childhood that Jorge first became interested in cycling. The Vuelta Ciclista de Chile would pass through his town each year and he remembered running down to the square to see the cyclists.

“What really impressed me as a young boy was to hear accents from all over the world, that was the only time of year we’d see people from another country and then the next day we’d go and watch them get ready to take off for another town. That stood with me for many years.”

He joined a cycling club in Wellington and as his cycling improved Jorge began racing in other cities, meeting more people, and becoming much more involved in the scene.

“Cycling is one of the sports that gives you the opportunity to race against the best in the country,” he says. “I was very privileged to start racing in New Zealand and eventually that’s what got me back to my own country many years later.”

Jorge’s referring to 1988 when he went to race in Chile, representing New Zealand. The South American country was still under military rule and leaders believed that hosting the international cycling race would improve the image of the country.

It was at this point that the media managed to capture his emotional reunion with his parents, more than 13 years since they’d last seen each other. It wasn’t long before journalists realised he was Chilean and began asking why he was representing New Zealand.

“I never told them why, I was scared.”

These days Jorge is the best known cycle promoter in New Zealand and organises the Tour of New Zealand, a five day race over 670kms. He has three grandkids who he absolutely adores and who regularly visit him in the Wairarapa.

Jorge Sandoval. (Photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross)

Although he says coming to New Zealand was the best thing that could’ve happened to him, Jorge says there are still moments of sadness at everything he lost in the process.

“Sometimes I get frustrated because I’ve never been a Chilean in my own country. Yes I grew up there but I would like the opportunity to get up and go to work and be around my family and just be a Chilean in Chile.”

He empathises with refugees around the world today and feels far more comfortable sharing his story now than he did in the 1970s.

“I don’t think anyone grows up wanting to be a refugee, unfortunately it happened to me and thousands of other people and it’s still happening today. I don’t think anybody in their right mind would like to leave their country, their children, their family, just because they want to go away.

“Refugees are people in need, people who need to be supported – especially when they arrive in another country, they need to receive the basic support to survive. As a refugee, I have nothing but respect for refugees around the world.”

Kiwi Legends is a regular series profiling people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home. Find out more about the Red Cross’s work with New Zealand refugees at redcross.org.nz.

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