National Portrait: Rez Gardi, lawyer, resettled refugee, outstanding young New Zealander

Former refugee Rez Gardi feels incredibly lucky to have had opportunities to succeed in New Zealand, but wants to make ...

Former refugee Rez Gardi feels incredibly lucky to have had opportunities to succeed in New Zealand, but wants to make things easier for today's young refugees.

Rez Gardi still remembers the taste of hope. It came in a glass bottle, in an Americana burger joint in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

After nine years in limbo, her refugee family had just learned they would be resettled in New Zealand.

"It was just so exciting. It was like, ooh, we can actually celebrate. We're leaving. On the odd occasion I feel like a Coke, it's because of that memory of the taste."

It was 1998. Gardi was six and it was her first ever Coke. She'd been born in a camp in Quetta and refugee life was all she'd known. Her Iraqi Kurd mother had fled to Iran in the late 1970s, after Gardi's grandmother was killed in attacks on the Kurdish region by the ruling Ba'ath Party. Her father fled later in the 80s, around the time of the Kurdish genocide.

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Some refugees at Gardi's tent camp resorted to hunger strikes to protest the long wait for resettlement.

Iran was dangerous for a couple fighting for Kurdish rights, so they eventually escaped to Pakistan in cargo trucks, with Gardi's older brother and sister.  

They were told resettlement would take six months. When the family left for New Zealand nine years later, Gardi spoke three languages, but not a word of English. Her world of tent cities in a desert-like nowhere, disease, hardship and hunger strikes, marches protesting camp conditions, was about to change forever.

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As a youngster, Gardi was teased for being different, but she learned to embrace both her Kurdish heritage and her New Zealand citizenship. Photo: CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Gardi emerges from the Auckland offices of Chapman Tripp trailing confidence. The 25-year-old graduate lawyer fits me in between work and netball. Dark eyes, bright smile, sharp mind.

Her CV is a careers adviser's dream – Red Cross youth adviser; United Nations human rights intern, Nairobi (working with one of the world's largest slums); New Zealand youth delegate at the Women Deliver Conference, Denmark (where she met idol Helen Clark). Oh, and finalist for 2017 Young New Zealander of the Year.

It's hard to reconcile this articulate young woman with the stellar credentials with the wordless child who arrived in this alien land. Here, she was no longer dragged across the classroom by her plaits by the teacher for mispronouncing a word, as she did in Pakistan. But there were new humiliations.

"It was really tough to fit in. I didn't speak a word of English. I didn't know how anything worked ... Kids would tease me when I tried to speak English. People would ask me how I am and I would say 'My name is Rez', because that was all I knew. Kids would not let that go for weeks."

Gardi's father was imprisoned for activism.

When 9/11 happened, she'd been preparing a presentation on her favourite Kurdish food – dolma. There was a big map showing Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, and nearby Afghanistan. It was the death knell for Gardi the Kurd. 

"They started nick-naming me Osama bin Laden. Teasing, calling me a terrorist. Making sounds of bombs when I'd walk past. Really cruel stuff."

Suddenly, she feared being different. She told lies, pretending she was born in Auckland. She avoided speaking Kurdish outside her home.

Donald Trump's "incredibly harmful and dangerous" policies and travel ban have brought all that back. While she's not a practising Muslim – her parents prioritised politics over religion – Gardi could be hit by the confusion. In the ban's early days, her sister was denied an electronic visa for the United States, because you have to declare if you've travelled to an affected country.

"It's creating this us against them mentality. It's divisive. It's regressive. And it's just horrendous ... If people don't stand up against that, you can see how that cycle happened in the past, with Hitler's Germany and African American segregation laws."

Gardi loses her train of thought and apologises. "I'm so emotional about it."

So far, she's had only support from fellow Kiwis, who are just as shocked as she is. But she's upset at Prime Minister Bill English saying the policy is not racist, "when all global leaders are standing up against this shocking executive order".

She was sometimes embarrassed, too, attending the annual conference of the UN refugee agency in Geneva. Sure, New Zealand looks good next to Australia, with its hardline border security. But when you start talking numbers, we take about as many refugees per person as Saudi Arabia – not a country we usually benchmark our social policies against.

Gardi met her idol Helen Clark at the Women Deliver 2016 Global Conference in Copenhagen. Photo: Supplied

Visiting Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time, in 2005, triggered Gardi's slow transition to accepting that embracing New Zealand didn't need to mean denying where she'd come from. She met her father's family and revelled in the sound of belonging – of everyone speaking her language.

"It hit me with a lot of emotion. It was lifechanging."

It motivated her to help new refugee families being resettled. New Zealand's refugee support has changed dramatically since Gardi and her family arrived at Mangere, with no idea about New Zealand or what to expect. There's now a formal resettlement programme and Red Cross volunteers, like Gardi, who can answer basic questions. 

Legally, you're no longer a refugee once you're permanently settled, Gardi points out.

"But that's just legally. That sticks forever, I think, being a refugee."

Communities – including her own – struggle to shake off the mentality of living as if tomorrow you might need to run to safety. Her parents still speak broken English. Her Mum works as a chef and her Dad has his own painting business. They had different aspirations for themselves, but lacked opportunities.

The hope should be that the next generation can realise that potential. But Gardi says too many resettled young people are not getting the education or jobs they're capable of. Just knowing what courses are available and how to apply can be mind-boggling if no-one you know has ever gone to university. Which is why she's setting up a mentoring scheme for refugee youth.

Gardi has also worked with the University of Auckland to raise funds for three refugee scholarships a year for the next six years.

"The only difference between me and millions of refugee youth is that I had access to education. That's why I'm able to advocate for refugees. That's why I'm able to even have a voice. When we're in this kind of position of privilege, having all these opportunities, we have to use them to help those who aren't and who don't have a voice."







 - Stuff


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