Dr Zhiyan Basharati (left) and Professor Diana Sarfati - Otago alumnae and winners in the recent NEXT magazine Woman of the Year awards.
Two Otago alumnae took top honours at the recently-announced NEXT magazine's Woman of the Year awards. Professor Diana Sarfati won both the Supreme award and the Health and Science category and Dr Zhiyan Basharati received the Community category award.
Both women are leaders in their respective fields of cancer research and community advocacy, and are united by their motivation to improve the lives of all New Zealanders and to give voice to the voiceless.
It's been a busy and successful year for Professor Sarfati, who in August was also named as the interim National Director for the new Cancer Control Agency.
In announcing the Supreme Award winner, NEXT says top figures in NZ medicine described the public health physician and cancer epidemiologist as “a champion of the vulnerable” and a person of international influence.
Professor Sarfati says the award was very unexpected, and she felt “kind of shocked” when her name was announced.
She says all the women finalists are doing extraordinary work and to be awarded the Supreme Award is very special.
“One of the funny things is that so many of the women who won awards said they couldn't believe they had won, they were 'just doing my little bit' – and I felt much the same. On the one hand it was fantastic and on the other hand I was just getting on with what I do.”
What Professor Sarfati does is work in the field of public health, with a particular focus on inequalities in cancer care. During her career she has led a large body of research relating to ethnic disparities in cancer outcomes, particularly those affecting indigenous people.
"One of the funny things is that so many of the women who won awards said they couldn't believe they had won, they were 'just doing my little bit' – and I felt much the same. On the one hand it was fantastic and on the other hand I was just getting on with what I do."
She is a member of the Advisory Committee to the International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC) Pacific cancer hub and IARC's international expert group on social inequalities in cancer, and recently led a Lancet Oncology series on cancer control in small island developing states.
Earlier this year she co-led the Cancer Care at a Crossroads conference, which provided impetus for the government's new National Cancer Action Plan. The conference was opened by cancer campaigner Blair Vining.
“Blair was the human face of the issues we were talking about; he brought them to public attention which makes a huge difference in getting momentum.”
Sadly, Mr Vining died the day after she received her award.
Professor Sarfati graduated from Otago in 1991 and after clinical work and qualifying in public health medicine she joined the University's public health department in 2006.
“I really enjoyed my clinical medicine, but found that there was so much that we couldn't do very much about once people were unwell. I could see many things we could be doing better.
“Public health lets you look at systems and population health information and how you might be able to move outcomes in a positive direction.”
She has taken a six-month secondment from her current role as Head of The Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington and Director of the Cancer and Chronic Conditions research group to take up the role of interim National Director of the Cancer Control Agency.
Two months into her new job, Professor Sarfati is working on getting the structures of the agency up and running and making sure it is set up in such a way as to enable improvement of outcomes over time.
She says one of the really critical things for the agency is to engage with those affected by cancer – families and clinicians across the board - and to ascertain what the issues are from their point of view.
To achieve equity in cancer care across the population, she says it must be central to the work of the agency. This will be reflected from the top down, with strong Māori representation on the board.
“We need to think innovatively about how we can achieve equity, in order to form a long-term strategy to continually improve – if we don't place emphasis on equity we're not going to make progress.”
She also sees part of her job as getting people excited about the future and what's possible.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity to lay the foundations for a system that will improve outcomes for people in New Zealand and make a substantial difference. It doesn't come along very often.”
Zhiyan Basharati – giving voice to the voiceless
For Zhiyan Basharati, winner of the NEXT Community Category, the award recognises 10 years of voluntary community work advocating for refugees and the pivotal role she has played in the response to help 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.
At the age of 11, Zhiyan arrived in New Zealand with her family, having spent her childhood in a Kurdish refugee camp.
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 and has spent a huge part of her adult life volunteering as an advocate for refugees and migrants.
Her parents encouraged their children to go to university and 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.”
After gaining her BA she volunteered almost full-time 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.”
"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."
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. 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.
Zhiyan 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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”