Story: Middle Eastern peoples

A group of Assyrian women

The most numerous of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern immigrants were the Lebanese. They were called ‘the quiet immigrants’, because they worked hard to establish themselves. Businesses such as Farry’s menswear and Corbans wines carry the names of their 19th-century founders. These pioneers were distinctive – the women wore bright clothes and jewellery, while their men walked farm roads selling goods. About a century later, New Zealand’s Middle Eastern community grew as Iraqi and Iranian refugees arrived to start a new life.

Story by James Veitch and Dalia Tinawi
Main image: A group of Assyrian women

Story summary

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The Lebanese

The Middle East stretches from Türkiye to Iran. Of the peoples in this region, the Lebanese have the longest history in New Zealand.

In the late 1800s migrants left Lebanon in search of wealth in the New World, including the goldfields of Australia. Some then crossed the Tasman Sea to Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland in the 1880s and 1890s.

By 1936 there were 1,261 people of Lebanese origin in New Zealand. Most lived in Otago, Southland and Auckland. The Lebanese suffered some prejudice. Although a small group, they were noticeable because of their olive complexion and their work as peddlers and business people. However, they were resourceful and worked mostly for themselves, and within a few generations they had joined New Zealand’s professional and business communities.


The only other Middle Eastern groups that have come in any number are Assyrian Christians and other refugees from Iraq and Iran who arrived during the 1990s – over 100 years after the Lebanese.

By the 2000s there were also small numbers of people from countries such as Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Türkiye and the United Arab Emirates.

How to cite this page:

James Veitch and Dalia Tinawi, 'Middle Eastern peoples', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by James Veitch and Dalia Tinawi, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2015