From refugee to 2017 Young New Zealander of the Year, Rez Gardi has come a long way. She talks life, learning and finding what you love at uni.
Like the time she and her family, who had been trapped in a Pakistan refugee camp after fleeing war-torn Kurdistan for 10 years, were told they were being resettled in New Zealand.
When she tried her first sip of Coke as she waited for her flight out of Pakistan, and it “tasted like hope”.
When she got a question wrong during her first week of school in New Zealand, and wasn’t beaten for not having the correct answer.
Or, when she walked across the stage of Auckland’s Aotea centre in a cap and gown, about to graduate from the University of Auckland not only with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) but a Bachelor of Arts as well, double majoring in Criminology and International Relations.
“I still have moments where I think this isn’t real,” says the bubbly 26-year-old lawyer and human rights activist, who in 2017 was named Young New Zealander of the Year for her work with refugees.
“I’ve had a lot against me in my life, and I’ve always been really tough on myself, but I always think that I can do things that aren’t possible. There’s no reason why we limit ourselves with things we assume aren’t possible, without even trying.”
Rez’s story starts in Pakistan, where she was born into the United Nations refugee camp her parents had fled to from Iran two years previously. As prominent Kurdish activists, they’d faced persecution in their town, with Rez’s dad imprisoned and tortured multiple times. So, they decided to run, escaping Iran in the back of a cargo truck in 1989.
“I remember the camp – we shared big tents with around four or five other families,” Rez tells.
“Actually, my most vivid memory is the kids who had worms. It was awful.”
It was in Pakistan where Rez first went to school, though that experience still haunts her now. She could speak two languages – Kurdish and Farsi – but struggled with Urdu, Pakistan’s national tongue.
“It was a horrible part of my childhood. My brother, sister and I stuck out like sore thumbs. The other kids didn’t like us because we were refugees, and the teachers would beat us because we didn’t know the language. The memories are still horrible; I remember really not wanting to go to school, not wanting to learn. I used to run and hide under my brother’s desk.”
But soon after starting school came the news she and her family had been dreaming of. They were being resettled in New Zealand – although the well-meaning staff at the UN camp told the Gardi family that New Zealand was a city in Australia.
Fast-forward a few months and Rez was looking out the window of an airplane, watching Auckland come into view – her new home.
“It was so green, I’d never seen so many trees!” she laughs. “It was a real shock – we’d literally come from the middle of nowhere in the desert. And then we landed, and everything was so calm, and clean and nice – and white! There wasn’t too much diversity back then.”
Arriving at the Mangere refugee resettlement centre, Rez and her family embarked on a six-week course to help them settle into Kiwi life, before they moved into a house all on their own. It was a time of intense joy, but great uncertainty for the Gardis, who at that stage couldn’t speak English.
“I mean, I knew three languages, but unfortunately English wasn’t one of them!” she laughs now. “I picked it up pretty quickly though, I think that’s why. But moving into a home just for my family was the weirdest thing. We’d been sharing one room with four other families, and to have all this space was so isolating and shocking. It took us a long time to get used to.”
Rez started her Kiwi schooling soon after, and within a year the gifted student went from only being able to say one phrase – ‘my name is Rez’, much to the amusement of her classmates – to being promoted to the gifted student stream at her primary school.
“I think that was because I’d come from this extreme hatred and fear, and then all of a sudden, I had this freedom to learn,” she says.
“Actually, I first thought that all Kiwi kids were geniuses, because they were putting their hands up and answering questions, and I thought they weren’t getting any of them wrong, because they weren’t getting beaten.
I was like, ‘Wow! These kids are smart!’ Then I learnt English and realised the teachers were just nice!”
Rez’s real turning point came in 2005, when she and her family returned to Kurdistan following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Listening to all her cousins wistfully discuss their dreams of going to high school, the then 13-year-old Rez realised the gift she’d been given, and resolved to make the most of her education and to help make a difference for those like her family still living in the Middle East.
“I knew I couldn’t be a freedom fighter like my parents, but it dawned on me – what if I could do something from little old New Zealand?”
And so Rez made it her mission to study law at the University of Auckland, eventually earning a scholarship and making it through the tough coursework to graduate with honours.
“My first day was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments; although I felt like everyone was super-smart and I was the dumbest person in the room,” she admits.
It was at university where Rez says she found what her true passions were – and weren’t.
“I changed my major a few times. I started thinking I’d do sociology or politics, and I tried anthropology and did some Spanish and psychology papers.
“People freak out about changing their majors, but so many people do, it’s fine. University is so much more than just study and getting good grades – it’s exploring other interests.
“My advice to any student would be, if you don’t have a set career path in mind, don’t freak out. Go and try things, sit in on different lectures. You might like something you never thought you would in high school – I loved geography at school, and when I went to a uni lecture, I hated it! Just give things a go.”
Giving things a go may as well be Rez’s motto – since leaving the University of Auckland, she’s gone on to be New Zealand’s first female Kiwi-Kurdish lawyer, 2017 Young New Zealander of the Year, found her own charity, Empower, represent New Zealand at the UN refugee agency, and take up work at the Human Rights Commission.
Oh, and she’s just started her masters in law at Harvard University in Boston.
Looking back, Rez admits it’s a lot – but she’s never had the time to reflect on her success.
“I need to work on that!” she laughs. “I’m just always thinking of the next thing.
“But despite everything, I feel very fortunate by my misfortune, because it decided a path for me before I even knew it. Being raised around injustice and a lack of human rights, I knew what those concepts were before I even knew they were concepts!
“Now, I get to combine my lived experiences with an academic and theoretical background. It’s a very powerful thing, and I’m thankful every day.”
Finding your tribe
The University of Auckland is a place for everyone – regardless of who you love, what you believe, or what you hope to become. While there’s a massive network of social and wellbeing groups you can get amongst, there are also plenty of ways to make getting to uni easier in the first place.
There are around 470 scholarships you can apply for. They cover everyone from those students who are experiencing hardship, through to exceptional academic ability and potential. There are also special scholarships on offer for Maori and Pacific students, and those who are from a refugee background, like Rez.
There are funds available for students who are experiencing hardship, but might not qualify for a scholarship. These include a student emergency fund, and the AUSA hardship grant. Visit auckland.ac.nz/hardship-support for more information.
Students who wish to practice their religion on-campus are well-catered for. The Maclaurin Chapel serves staff and students alike when it comes to matters of faith. A Chaplain for Muslims was appointed in 2018 and the City Campus also has a dedicated Muslim prayer room, while rooms for all faiths are located on each campus. See auckland.ac.nz/spiritual-support.