Learning the ropes

20:31, Feb 24 2013
Aliya Danzeisen
Aliya Danzeisen, centre, with some of her girls. From left, Kowna Ali, Khatra Omar, Fartun Abdi, Salma Salat and Khatra Mohamed.

When there were concerns five years ago that young people in the Waikato Muslim community - about 90 per cent of whom are from migrant backgrounds - were not integrating well into the community, Allyn "Aliya" Danzeisen shared these worries. But she was too busy to do much about it.

The full-time Spanish teacher and head of the Spanish department at Hillcrest High School had a family to take care of, too.

Still, she and four other women from her mosque attended a meeting called by Ann Dysart, a representative of the Ministry of Social Development's Settling In programme, to see if they could find some solutions.

"We went, all of us saying we were too busy, " Aliya says with a laugh. "She twisted our arm by saying, If you don't do it, who's going to?"

The women agreed that if they worked as a committee and each did a little bit of something, that it could work.

Wowma, the Women's Organisation of the Waikato Muslim Association, was born and young people were identified as a primary concern. Aliya became the co-ordinator of youth and started a programme for Muslim girls and women aged 14-25.


In the end, Aliya's done much more than a little bit of something. Under her leadership, these girls and women have done everything from archery to five- day canoe trips to rock climbing and abseiling. Their new netball team has just completed its first tournament and won a sportsmanship award.

Initially, some parents feared their children would "become Kiwis" and reject their own culture.

"Sixty-five per cent of our youth come from a refugee background, " says Aliya. "Perhaps their parents came here expecting to go back, but the likelihood is that they're going to stay in New Zealand because of circumstances in their own countries. And also, these kids have grown up here - they actually have a foot in each culture."

But this was not one unified culture: more than 40 countries are represented at the Hamilton mosque. And some young people are still learning English - all factors that can isolate them.

There is always an educational element to their adventures - learning about the environment, the history or culture of New Zealand or Maori, or about the Muslim religion.

"There is the proverb, that if you know where you come from, you will never be lost, " says Aliya. "We wanted the youth to know that when they went out into the wider community, they had a base to come back to. We created a programme so they united initially with each other, but also with New Zealand.


"Some of these girls have never had a positive experience outdoors. They may have walked 100 kilometres to get to the refugee camp for safety. They come from war zones, so their experiences of outdoors have been traditionally something frightening."

Parents were also concerned that religious restrictions might be breached. Co-ed camps, for instance, are a no-no for many.

"We have said from the beginning that we will focus on what we can do rather than get hung up on what we can't. If we can do something, we will find out how."

The first thing Aliya did was organise a camp - 42 girls showed up.

Kate Parr, who runs the Pirongia Forest Park Lodge and an outdoor education business, remembers Aliya's request to bring in female outdoor instructors for the camp. She also remembers the girls were not confident.

"They all held hands in the forest the first time. Now, five years on, they can do a 40m abseil. They are the ones running the camps now."

These are the girls in the leadership group Aliya started.

Khatra Mohamed, 17, one of those leaders, says she feels a lot more confident since joining the group. Salma Salat, 19, another leader, says she has become a lot closer to New Zealand: its environment, its history and its culture.

"Our parents were reluctant to let us join at first, but they can see the benefit now, even in the little things, " Salma says.

Khatra Omar, 18, who is also in the group, found that being around people who are "the same as her" made her feel more comfortable. "You don't have to worry about things like whether the food is halal - you're not constantly on the lookout. You can just relax."

She says a skiing and snowboarding trip to Ruapehu was a highlight.

Aliya says seeing their joy when they saw snow for the first time is hard to put in words.

"No-one taught them to have a snow ball fight, but one broke out spontaneously."

Khatra says their vision is for the community to unite and for the group to continue for generations. "We want to train new girls to take our place."

They talk fondly of Aliya, say she's like a mother, "except you can talk to her about things you can't talk to your mum about".

Aliya, who was born and raised in the United States before moving to New Zealand seven years ago, says the older girls will often come to her home just to hang out. She prefers to see herself as an aunt - someone able to offer a different viewpoint. In the girls' home cultures, she says, chances are they'd have extended family members to talk to. But because of war situations, they may have lost family, or the ones who stayed behind might not be able to give advice about a situation particular to New Zealand.

She is often contacted when young people have a problem. "Because of my visibility, teaching at the high school, other teachers and counsellors might call me when there is an issue. I've had youth show up at my door at midnight and share things they haven't been able to share with anyone."

There's a closeness and a trust between them that she says a five- day canoeing trip will do for you. "I try to be a motivator. If they disappoint, I let them know."

Aliya is proud of what her group has achieved. She says the Muslim community is a lot closer and parents are now open to letting their children befriend people from other cultures and to attend intercultural events.

"I get the fact that I'm able to help girls whose lives weren't stimulating or challenging enough to blossom. Refugees have been given a shelter, but not a lot of information on how to move forward and how to not let someone define them as a victim.

"I've had counsellors coming to me saying the girls don't come to them as much and don't have as many issues. Teachers say their writing is more in- depth because they're writing about experiences they've actually done.

"You can see it in our youth: they're stronger, they're happier. They will say, 'I don't want to leave New Zealand'."

And New Zealand will want to keep them.

This is a big deal for Aliya, who is vocal about stemming the tide of people finding greener pastures in Australia. She encourages the young women to make sure they and their families stay here and contribute once they get their degrees. She says it was "very hard" recently losing a strong leader in the group to Australia because she couldn't find work here after completing her occupational therapy degree. She says graduates are finding it hard to get jobs and she's determined to find out why.

About 200 girls have gone through the group. They can be as involved as much they like, some choosing to join only one or two activities. Of the school leavers, only one has not gone on to university.

They are encouraged to give back in their spare time and through their careers.

Every participant is expected to "pay it forward" to both the Muslim community and the wider New Zealand community.

They will do community services like cleaning up the environment, and they organised and cooked a giant banquet for members of their mosque - an idea they came up with themselves.

"We're building people for whom it's natural to contribute."

Aliya's dream is for the young women to run the programme without her and to share what they've learnt by becoming outdoor instructors for activities like abseiling and rock climbing.

"This is not just a Muslim thing we're doing, it's a Kiwi thing - to make people feel connected to Aotearoa New Zealand, and to want to stay here."