As a medical doctor, Tony realised the enormous needs of asylum seekers and other needy people. She became a determined advocate and activist, making life better for scores of people in New Zealand.
Tony was born in 1941, the second child of Audrey and Siegfried Albrecht, in Adelaide Australia, where Siegfried worked in munitions for the war effort.
As a child, Tony faced significant health problems—beginning with rheumatic fever at age three. Apparently she didn’t like the people with white coats talking about her but not to her. She decided she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, so that she could be a good doctor who would talk to her patients. That was perhaps indicative of the battler Tony became.
‘At three years old I was sent to Sunday School, although my parents had only residual belief in God. I learnt that Jesus loves little children. And Jesus loves me.’ This remains vivid with Tony today. ‘Don’t underestimate pre-schoolers,’ she says. ‘I can remember that time.’
A second health crisis came with polio. Tony was in hospital and then convalescing at home from age 9 to 11. ‘I experienced genuine impartial love from the nurses,’ she observes. ‘I felt its importance ever after.’ It still made for a lonely childhood and physically lagging behind the other kids.
Home was often stressful too, as her father was alcoholic and disruptive. He had come to Australia from Germany at 18 in 1928, never saw his family again, and during World War 2 was ostracised for being German. He felt conflicted and often distressed.
Tony obtained a scholarship to study in medicine and pressed on with training to become a doctor. She moved to Wellington in 1969 to work as a registrar in Ophthalmology, and then went to London to pursue this. But later, in London, she found she didn’t enjoy it, so took work in NZ as a GP.
After marrying industrial chemist Norman Wansbrough in 1973, Tony had two children: a son, Keith, and daughter, Heather. They all loved the outdoors and tramped extensively, despite the reduced lung capacity Tony’s polio bequeathed to her. (With an effort, Tony even ascended Ruapehu in her mid-fifties!)
Tony and Norman were always keen to find ways to help others. They volunteered with Birthright for some years (an in-home mentoring programme for struggling families). When the couple transferred to Auckland, they first attended a Methodist church, then Remuera Baptist because it was nearer, and later two other Baptist churches before settling at Ponsonby Baptist from 2000s.
From public health to advocacy
Tony returned to her professional life by working in public health. Over time, she did 15 years as a Medical Officer mainly in Child Health and later 15 years in the Control of Infectious Diseases. She was often among new migrants, treating TB and other infectious diseases, and developed a huge concern for asylum seekers, and began advocating for them. As a doctor, she documented signs of torture to substantiate their claims for asylum, and often prescribed for mental health issues.
Refugees became permanent residents immediately on arrival in New Zealand, but asylum seekers were different, even if frequently from a similar background. They tended to arrive at the NZ border claiming asylum and seeking refugee status, and then had to wait for legal investigation of their claim. They could stay, but often with no work permit, so no income. Tony recalls that when she began advocating for them, there were up to 900 in a year. The Auckland Asylum Seekers’ Trust ran a hostel with 12 bedrooms and social support, but it was nowhere near enough. Some people could stay with their own community, while some were seriously deprived as no government department took responsibility for them.
Here is one story. A heavily pregnant Somali woman was interviewed at the airport for seven hours then told, ‘You can go now.’ She said, ‘Where to?’ Shrug. She was cared for by nuns one night, slept rough another, then had pains. The hostel was full. Someone sent for Dr Tony and she rang Norman to take her to their own home, until a Somali community leader was able to galvanise another family for her to stay with.
Existence was exceedingly stressful for many. Women had miscarriages. Men had difficulties too. When a long airport interview was over, Ben from Algeria asked, ‘Which way to Auckland?’ and set out to walk the 22 km with suitcase in hand. He collapsed. Someone took him to City Hospital where he spoke only French. A social worker got him into the asylum seeker hostel. Tony has seen a father break down and cry on reading the letter of acceptance to New Zealand.
Tony used to sign up for only six tenths of a salaried job to leave time for her volunteer work. So she became a remarkable advocate, working from rules around residential status, benefits and housing options. She often worked with the International Red Cross to assist in bringing family members to New Zealand once initial claims were granted. This process could take years, and the delay sometimes resulted in families breaking up. On one such occasion, Tony supported the deserted family in Zimbabwe, paying the children’s school fees and getting the wife a sewing machine so that she could support herself and her children.
Tony set up ‘Circles of Friends’ for several families—people she persuaded to pledge rent and food for asylum-seeking families. The Wansbrough family supported some people directly. Daughter Heather recalls several times coming home from Uni to find no cutlery in the drawers. It had gone to some needy family.
From 1998 to 2011 Tony became an advocate to government departments and an activist for better care of asylum seekers. Shouldn’t they at least earn to stay alive? There needed to be a law change where men had two or more wives and NZ law told them to bring one. Leave the other(s) with no support? The efforts of Tony and others made an enormous difference for political activists and religious minorities from Iran, Burma, Sri Lanka, Syria, South America, Somalia and others places in Asia and Africa.
Tony’s next advocacy push came against health boards. Health care was near impossible for asylum seekers, treated as non-citizens and required to pay full price. Frequently Tony stood with an asylum seeker at a health desk to argue that caring for a person was legitimate. Maternity care was also refused, but at least if a woman presented in labour, she was given a safe delivery.
Tony’s advocacy and arguments for asylum seekers certainly made a difference. And what has Tony learnt? ‘I have learnt great respect for the resilience of people. I am enriched through the culture of others. I experience the joy of being invited to sit at an African woman’s fireside.’
Even after she retired, Tony remained a go-to person for many non-medical needs in Auckland’s asylum seeker community. She is still invited to a string of weddings among these grateful people. They respect her so much. And that is a satisfaction to Tony too. ‘I’m most gratified when I see people whom I have helped settle well,’ she says. ‘So it has led to attendance at a good number of Iranian weddings.’
Working with prisoners
Then there were the prisoners. A lifer advertised in Challenge Weekly for a picture Bible. Norman and Tony responded. He invited them to visit him in prison and they visited for some years, even inviting him to Christmas dinner.
In the 1990s a woman in a computer class asked Norman to visit her husband in prison on drink driving charges. At conditional release, he stayed seven months with the family, studying plumbing and practising guitar to play in church. The couple arranged for counselling while he still had the bracelet on his ankle, and helped him gain work.
Loving our neighbour
Norman and Tony always ran a hospitable home, taking in various people who needed a place to stay for months or years, be they friends of her children, prisoners on parole or out-of-town theological students. They remained in contact with a vast number of people.
What influenced Tony, then, to work so hard at helping other people from other countries? Tony has her answer ready. ‘It was because of my own life experience. And, as a Christian I met some very thoughtful lay and ministry thinkers who shaped me to deeply love my neighbour as myself.
‘It’s expressed beautifully in my all-time favourite Christian song, Brother, sister, let me serve you, Let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I might have the grace To let you be my servant, too. I love that. Reciprocity is a beautiful thing. We are here to help each other. Even more than leaders, we need to be people who care for one another.’