Thursday 7 November 2019 12:56pm
At the age of 11, Zhiyan Basharati arrived in New Zealand with her family, having spent her childhood in a Kurdish refugee camp. Fear and violence were part of her everyday life.
No-one in her family knew anything about the country they had arrived in; they couldn’t read or speak English. When they moved from the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre to Christchurch it was the middle of winter, and it was dark and cold and “very strange”.
Eighteen years on, Zhiyan speaks fluent English, has gained a PhD in forensic psychology, learned about the history of her people, the culture of her new home, and spent a huge part of her adult life volunteering as an advocate for refugees and migrants.
Earlier this month, her work in the community was recognised when she won the NEXT magazine 2019 Woman of the Year Community Category, for her advocacy work and the pivotal role she played in the response to support victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings.
“You don’t want to receive recognition for a tragic event but I accept it for a lot of people in the community who are working at the grassroots level and making a huge difference,” she says.
Zhiyan spent the first 11 years of her life with 15,000 other Iranian Kurds in a refugee camp in Iraq, in an atmosphere of violence and fear with Iraqi soldiers frequently raiding the camp and terrorising people.
“Every day, I didn’t know if my father would return from work.”
She and four of her siblings were born in the camp, with two other siblings born in Kurdistan.
When the Iraq war ended her family came to New Zealand in 2001 under the United Nations Refugee Agency quota system.
“Nobody had any idea where New Zealand was, we didn’t have a clue where we were going. When we first came to Christchurch it was June, and it was cold and dark and scary.”
The children took on the parent role, learning to translate and understand Kiwi culture. Once she learned to read English, she began to learn about the history of the Kurdish people for the first time.
“I didn’t know who the Kurds were. We weren’t told about their history in the camp, we were deprived of information and education.”
Her parents encouraged their children to carry on with their studies, to be independent and to go to university. At first she chose “random papers” at Otago but eventually settled on Psychology and Economics.
“Human behaviour was something I wanted to understand, because of my background.
“Growing up [as I did] you are angry at the world and angry at people.”
She returned to Christchurch after finishing her BA as her father was unwell and needed her help to navigate the health system.
“It takes years to accept that you live in a stable system, to believe in it and gain trust.”
To give back to New Zealand for giving her the opportunity to live here and gain an education, she volunteered almost fulltime for the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre, while working on her honours and PhD degrees and teaching part-time at the University of Canterbury.
It was during this time she realised that “young people didn’t have a voice.”
To help change this, she went on to found the NZ National Youth Refugee Council in 2013 and travelled around New Zealand connecting with young refugees. Recognising the importance of engaging with the whole community, she held many other volunteer positions including Chairperson of the Canterbury District Health Board Consumer Council and Vice-Chair of the Christchurch Multicultural Strategy Working Party for the Christchurch City Council.
Then, on 15 March this year, she was at Christchurch Hospital sitting by her brother’s bed – he had just had surgery – when she looked out the window and saw a whole lot of ambulances arriving. She realised quickly that what was happening involved the mosque.
“I was concerned at first that one of my brothers had been at prayer but because my older brother was sick he had covered for him at work and hadn’t gone.”
She made herself known to staff and began organising translators who spoke Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Somali or Kurdish to help with victims and family members and all the calls coming in.
“After that [my involvement] just seemed to happen naturally – I had been working for nine years in the community and knew a lot of people who could help - with the welfare centre, with contacts in hospital and the city council, with police.
“It felt like at that moment all the work I’d done was meant to be.”
But for the very first time in New Zealand she felt unsafe. “It was like I was back in the refugee camp. But if I didn’t contribute I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. I had 11 years of feeling unsafe, I grew up with it and know how to cope with it. I saw that fear in the eyes of the victims and their families, it was what I had known in the refugee camp.”
In the following days she began to coordinate the welfare centre at Hagley College and set up the Christchurch Victims Organising Committee (CVOC) to keep people updated with news and information.
Today, she continues with this work as the Operations Manager for CVOC, now a registered trust operating from an office in the Phillipstown Community Hub. Much of her time is spent dealing with visa issues, medical and mental health care and organising meetings with politicians. The CVOC also provides legal advocacy to the victims and their families.
Out of respect for the victims she has connected one-by-one with each family involved. Along with five other volunteers, she has tried to make sure they are all given the support and information they need, connecting them to the organisations that can help.
“Now, the victims are speaking for themselves and they are deciding what they want to do as regards matters such as money, mental health and funds to widows.
“I’m very happy that I’ve done this work, it’s obviously not easy, it’s very difficult being stuck in the middle of government, religious groups and community. You have to balance all those things and be very careful what you do.”
Zhiyan intends to be with CVOC until the end of the year, by which time she hopes people who have been involved with the centre will be able to pick up the work and carry on. She is applying for jobs in the Middle East and hopes to go back and teach at a university or work for an organisation like the United Nations.
“My purpose is to give voice to the voiceless.
“It’s justice basically. People should be heard and decisions not made lightly as regards their futures.”