"Bullies made bomb noises"

By University of Auckland Sponsored

Persecution in the Middle East and bullying in NZ drives Kurdish/Kiwi lawyer to help refugees.
Rez Gardi : 2017 Young New Zealander of the Year and University of Auckland Law graduate. Picture / supplied
Rez Gardi : 2017 Young New Zealander of the Year and University of Auckland Law graduate. Picture / supplied

Born in a refugee camp in Pakistan, Rez Gardi was forced to lie about her Kurdish heritage to avoid being bullied at school soon after establishing a new life in New Zealand.

After her family spent years fleeing the persecution of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, Gardi (then aged seven) and her family resettled here in 1998, hoping their hard times were over.

Not for Gardi they weren't. The 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 changed everything for her; it was then the bullying began.

"The other kids made up a connection, they said 'you are one of them'," she says. "They taunted me, they said Osama Bin Laden was my dad, they made bomb noises when I walked past and on one occasion a group cornered me, punched and kicked me and told me to go back to my country.

"My first response was to go into denial, to blend in, to be a Kiwi. I started to lie about where I was from, I would get my parents to pick me up well away from school so other kids couldn't hear them speaking Kurdish.

"I had always been an outgoing person and got involved in everything," she says. "But I became reserved because I didn't want to stand out or draw attention to myself. I was only 10 then and, although the bullying did reduce over time, it still happened until I was about 17."

Yet Gardi, now 27, has risen above all this. Named Young New Zealander of the Year in 2017 for her services to human rights, she became New Zealand's first female Kurdish lawyer after completing a law degree and an arts degree at the University of Auckland.

She is now studying for an LLM (Master of Law) at Harvard Law School in Massachusetts and plans to dedicate her life to working to help protect refugees and marginalised people around the world.

She already has an impressive track record. In conjunction with the University of Auckland, she has established three scholarships for students from refugee backgrounds – part of the For All Our Futures campaign and her desire to break down barriers many refugees face in getting opportunities to study at a tertiary level.

Internationally she has represented New Zealand at global refugee youth consultations, the OECD Forum, Women Deliver conference and speaks annually at the UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) meetings with non-government organisations.

These are just the tip of the iceberg – her list of achievements and involvement with human rights organisations runs to well over two pages on her CV.

Yet all of this might not have happened had she, her parents, brother and sister not been re-settled in New Zealand in 1998, as part of the quota for refugees.

Born in a refugee camp in Quetta, Pakistan, she knew only a life on the run as her parents escaped the persecution of Kurds in Iraq and Iran. Her mother's Kurdish village in Iraq was attacked by chemical weapons – her grandmother and two aunts were killed – while her father's family had fled from Turkey to Iraq but were forced again to flee from Iraq to Iran during Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign against the Kurds in Iraq.

Political activists, her parents fought for Kurdish rights and independence while in Iran. But, fearing the danger they were in, they eventually escaped to Pakistan.

Gardi says the family knew nothing about New Zealand when told they were being resettled here: "It was very random, we had no choice about where we were going, we had never even heard of New Zealand."

Despite being ostracised and bullied in the wake of 9/11, the move has been good for Gardi – and demonstrates the relevance of a good education for someone wanting to affect change: "I was the first in my family able to go to university and I'm very conscious that my parents gave up everything to give me this opportunity.

"They barely finished school themselves and when I went back to Kurdistan for the first time in 2005, I met cousins who had had no education. To them it was an unattainable dream."

She says although she went through university on a scholarship that was merit-based, she realised refugees face significant barriers in gaining access to higher level education.

Gardi says the example of her parents helped shape how she wants to spend her life: "I've been around (human rights activism) all my life and helping marginalised people access justice is part of my DNA.

"I came to understand from an early age what the denial of justice meant and it drives me to do what I do every day. My education is not only for me, it is something I can use to really help others; the only difference between me and millions of refugee youth is that I had access to education.

"This is my huge dream for all refugee children," she says. "Without education a lot of the talents they have are wasted.

"I want better protections for minorities all around the world; I plan to dedicate my legal career to fighting for justice and equality."

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