Rez Gardi was awarded Young New Zealander of the Year in 2017. At the time, a second-year corporate solicitor at Chapman Tripp, Rez is passionate about advocating for refugees. "I didn’t choose to be a refugee; I was born as a refugee. Yet that label has come to define me even after nearly twenty years in New Zealand." We talk to Rez about how she came to be a New Zealander, and what we can learn from her journey.
A label of resilience
Rez firmly believes that the term 'refugee' needs to be redefined. At present, it comes with many negative connotations. But to Rez, the term 'refugee' embraces resilience and strength. "To me, refugees are resilient. Refugees manage to pick themselves up and fight for a safer, better future, instead of giving up."
Rez's background is proof of such resilience and strength. Her parents, political activists in the fight for Kurdish rights, had been forced to flee their home country of Kurdistan.
Rez was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and grew up in "inhumane" conditions. "I saw people die from disease and hunger strikes. I saw authorities abuse peaceful protesters. All before I reached the age of 7."
New Zealand in the eyes of a newcomer
Rez and her family arrived in New Zealand in 1998. "I was so shocked by how green and clean it was. I was also shocked that we had a whole house to ourselves."
Rez couldn't speak a word of English when she first started school in New Zealand. She was now learning her fourth language. Her appreciation for school came from depths most New Zealand-born children could never imagine: "I was really surprised that I wasn’t being beaten with a stick or hit when I didn't know the answer to a question, like I was in Pakistan."
New Zealand's first Kurdish female lawyer
When Rez first visited Kurdistan to meet her family, she was struck by the persecution and injustice the Kurds have suffered; they are one of the most oppressed people in modern history.
Many millenials ask themselves how they might forge a career streaked with purpose. For Rez, the driving question was "how could I possibly do anything to help [the people of Kurdistan]?"
"I realised that I was quite good at writing, reading and public speaking, so I thought maybe a career in law could be my way of making a difference. I hope that one day I can focus my legal career on fighting for justice and equality for my people, the Kurds, and other underprivileged and marginalised people, globally."
The work-life balance of a Young New Zealander of the Year
Rez is a corporate solicitor at Chapman Tripp, one of New Zealand's top-tier law firms. In addition, Rez is engaged in a raft of refugee-related volunteer work. So what is the trick to being both a young professional and a hands-on volunteer?
"In all honesty, it may sound cliché, but it’s all about balance. I work really hard but ensure that I get time to relax as that makes me more productive."
But that's not to say it's all a breeze; "[T]here are days where I leave the house at 6am and get home just before midnight. I’m knackered. But I feel a great sense of satisfaction in what I’m working on."
And as Rez notes, "It makes it a lot easier to balance volunteer work with a full-time job as a corporate solicitor when your firm backs you up."
Leyla Zane; a force to be reckoned with
As a young Kurdish woman "passionate about the fight for Kurdish rights and independence", Rez looks up to Leyla Zana - a political activist for Kurdish rights.
Self-educated and the first Kurdish woman to win a seat in the Turkish Parliament, a quick read of Zana's journey from her election to imprisonment for "treason" to re-election shows the resilience and determination that Rez so admires.
The power behind the prestige of the Young New Zealander of the Year award
Rez sees the Young New Zealander of the Year award as a platform for her "to be a voice for the voiceless, to advocate for their rights, and to empower more young people to be champions of change."
Rez also hopes the award serves as a reminder to New Zealanders; we should not treat the privileges of freedom and equality lightly.
"I hope [this award] raises awareness about the adversity and challenges that many marginalised groups face in New Zealand, and that it promotes a greater tolerance and acceptance for diversity."
What we can do to ease the plight of settling new New Zealanders
Rez believes there is a very simple way to ensure newcomers can shed their label of refugee and become fellow Kiwis.
"Be welcoming. Simply accepting new New Zealanders into our country with open arms can contribute to their resettlement in a completely foreign place and shape their integration process and sense of self-worth."
Rez invites us to pause a moment in what were once her shoes. Resilience and strength may be powerful attributes of ex-refugees, but the challenge put forward by Rez is a reminder that we should all display empathy when it comes to displaced people; "How would you want to be treated? Would you want to be turned away?
Written by CHIA blogger, Anna Watson. Photo credit to UNHCR