New Zealander of the Year: 2023 Local Hero of the Year Dr Ellen Joan Nelson recognised Afghani refugees mission

For 38-year-old veteran Dr Ellen Joan Nelson, being named Local Hero of the Year Te Pou Toko o Te Tau at the New Zealander of the Year Te Pou Whakarae o Aotearoa Awards is “a real privilege to [be recognised for] what our team has done together”.

The Manawatū mother-of-two was recognised at the annual awards ceremony, hosted by Toni Street and Scott Morrison, on Thursday night in Auckland.

She told Stuff the evening was a great opportunity for the team to “celebrate what we did”. While Nelson was celebrated as the local hero on the night, she insists the work put in to bring 563 Afghan refugees to New Zealand was a collaboration of a number of people that “worked together”.

Having served in Afghanistan 12 years ago, in a team of Kiwi soldiers and Afghani locals, Nelson’s work began after the Taliban’s shock return to power in Afghanistan in 2021.

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It was in August of that year she was contacted by one of the Afghani team members she had served with years earlier, who had fled their home and pleaded for Nelson’s help.

“I said, ‘I don’t have any idea how to do that, but of course I will. I’ll do anything I can.’”

Visa applications with interpreters for several hundred refugees came next and Nelson was then contacted by two people – Chris Parsons and Martin Dransfield – who wanted to help and became invaluable team members.

Dr Ellen Joan Nelson has been named Local Hero of the Year.

Carlo Gomez/Brown Bread

Dr Ellen Joan Nelson has been named Local Hero of the Year.

Nelson met with the two over Zoom one night, while “in my dressing gown, breast-feeding my baby,” and started coming up with a plan. It involved a team of many – including government, media and invested New Zealanders – to make it happen.

“It was over the space of almost a year where we just worked together, collaborated and came up with solutions to overcome barrier after barrier,” she said.

“Slowly but surely, we managed to get all 563 people to New Zealand. I think it was this amazing collaboration … We all had this common purpose: how do we get these people out of Afghanistan? We all just came together and worked it out.”

Dr Ellen Joan Nelson with her son, Toby, and the family’s three dogs.


Dr Ellen Joan Nelson with her son, Toby, and the family’s three dogs.

Nelson attended the awards with family members, supporters, team members and one of the Afghan refugees that she helped bring to New Zealand.

She had booked her table for the event before she was announced as a finalist, figuring it was the perfect opportunity to celebrate together with the team.

“What a cool event to go and celebrate,” she said.

“We never did it for recognition, but it’s really lovely to have recognised what our team did together.”

The Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards have been held annually since 2010 and celebrates New Zealanders of all walks of life in seven categories, including Community of the Year, Young New Zealander of the Year and the coveted New Zealander of the Year.