Green MP Golriz Ghahraman: 'Being a refugee does make a difference'

by Sally Blundell / 28 November, 2017

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Golriz Ghahraman: NZ’s first refugee MP. Photo/Getty Images

High achiever Golriz Ghahraman exemplifies how helping people escape shattered lives benefits those fleeing and their hosts. 

Golriz Ghahraman stood at the top of the escalator in Auckland Airport’s transit lounge. Below were security and freedom, or a forced return to war-torn Iran, a country riven by food scarcity, gender inequality and political and religious repression. She was eight years old.

Making the most of a brief travel opportunity for Iranians, her parents had flown to Malaysia then fled to claim asylum in New Zealand, arriving in Auckland with no money, three changes of clothes and only a smattering of English.

“In Iran, people were disappearing, people were being rounded up and taken to war even if they were 13 years old,” Ghahraman says. “You knew people that terrible things had happened to. All that comes crashing down on you when you are standing in Auckland Airport knowing what your family might be returned to.”

Their bid for asylum was accepted. Today, Ghahraman has a master’s degree in international human rights law from the University of Oxford and has worked as a prosecutor and defence lawyer at United Nations tribunals for Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia. She was recently elected to Parliament as a Green Party MP.

“I never intended running as the first refugee MP but my announcement for my candidacy coincided with Trump’s travel ban and I got this outpouring of support. So I do own it – representation matters, it does make a difference at the decision-making table to have had that experience.”

As have millions of others. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), of the 22.5 million refugees in the world today, an expected 1.19 million will be in need of resettlement. New Zealand is one of 37 countries participating in the UN’s resettlement or quota programme, but ranks around 85th for total refugee resettlement per capita. Australia, with five times our population, from next year will be accepting 18 times New Zealand’s refugee intake.

Last year, under growing local and international pressure, then-Prime Minister John Key announced a permanent annual quota increase from 750 to 1000 and a new community sponsorship programme. Some non-government organisations cried foul: it was a “shameful and inhumane response”, said Amnesty International New Zealand executive director Grant Bayldon; considering the country’s image of itself as humanitarian, said Murdoch Stephens, founder of the Doing Our Bit campaign, it is a “ridiculous intake”.

Yet the National Government pointed to the work involved in resettling refugees once they are here, and the $300,000-per-person cost of orientation and housing.

“We got the quality thing right about 15 years ago,” says Maria Hayward, senior lecturer at AUT’s Centre for Refugee Education. She points to the one-off intake of 750 Syrian refugees, also announced by Key, in 2015 – 600 over and above the annual quota. “Have you heard any dramas? No, there were none. We have the capacity. We have fabulous community support, we provide good support in schools and we are getting better at educating communities – it is just a matter of employing a few more people.”

Education and job statistics back this up. From 2009-13, after five or more years in the school system, 73% of former refugee students attained NCEA level 2, compared with 72% for all school leavers. And employment figures show a jump at two years after arrival and another significant jump at five years.

Former Red Cross worker Rebecca Stewart knows how eager the new New Zealanders are to work. Last year, she teamed up with foodie Ange Wither to establish the Pomegranate Kitchen catering and lunch service in Wellington. Today, it employs seven cooks from Syria, Ethiopia, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq and is introducing the city to the cuisine of those countries.

From left, Pomegranate Kitchen’s Nada Jawad, Hajar Mazraeh, Majed Burhan, Muna Al Naser, Fatima Qasim Ali, Nazia Askary, Genet Seyoum and Rebecca Stewart come from six countries. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

“One of our functions is to change the conversation around not just what New Zealand needs to do to provide for people but what we would get in return if we brought more people in, and part of that is diversity of experience and of food.”

Once employed, says Ibrahim Omer, chair of Wellington’s ChangeMakers Refugee Forum, former refugees “pay tax, they bring many values, they are playing a great role in making New Zealand multicultural”.

Omer was 18 when he made a midnight run from Eritrea into Sudan past border guards with a shoot-to-kill policy, leaving behind home, family and a military conscription service that forced children as young as 16 into years of training or arbitrary detention.

“You know you might get shot or arrested or taken into concentration camps, but I knew I didn’t have a future in that country. I didn’t want one night to be picked up by the masked men and never seen again. No one wants to leave their family, their friends, where they grew up – a refugee is someone who flees their home because they have no option.”

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says refugee resettlement “is a priority for the Labour-led Government”. The Ardern Administration has confirmed its commitment to increasing the refugee quota to 1500 over three years and told Australia its offer to take 150 of the almost 600 refugees from the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea remains on the table. This month, Climate Change Minister and Greens leader James Shaw announced the Government will investigate an experimental visa for Pacific people displaced by rising seas caused by climate change.

But outside quota numbers, there are other barriers to resettlement in New Zealand. Under Immigration’s Refugee Family Support Category, former refugees can sponsor a family member, and their partner and dependent children, but this has an annual cap of 300 and is costly for the sponsors. Although anyone can apply for residence through the family-sponsored stream of our general immigration policy, the axing of the humanitarian category of this stream in 2001 narrowed the criteria under which potential migrants, including those in refugee-type situations, can apply.

With a recent shift in quota focus from Africa to the Asia-Pacific region, family connections are now the only way refugees in Africa can access our quota programme, even though Sub-Saharan Africa has more than 26% of the world’s refugee population.

And whereas “quota” refugees are supported through orientation programmes and ongoing Red Cross support, these services are not available for those who enter the country as asylum seekers or in family support categories.

The need for care and integrating was highlighted last month when a Wellington refugee support group told RNZ that some refugees were being left to fend for themselves. “They’re frustrated and upset at the lack of services and the lack of integration,” Asylum Seeker Equality Project volunteer Mahala Pinchen said.

Rez Gardi, who was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan to Kurdish parents fleeing Iraq, knows how lucky they were to have escaped persecution. After arriving here as a six-year-old, she was the first in her family to attend university and is New Zealand’s first Kurdish female lawyer. This year, she was named Young New Zealander of the Year for her services to human rights.

“I’ve been given an opportunity to be here and there are so many people around the world who would do anything to be in my position.”

She wishes more could be. “I’ve met people who say, ‘What is the economic benefit in taking refugees?’ We don’t take refugees first and foremost for economic need – we mistake that with migrants, who have a choice. Refugees don’t have a choice – many would not want to leave but they are forced to – but they do enrich New Zealand.

“There are many refugees contributing positively to our economy. They are studying, working, they are grateful to be resettled in a safe place and they want to give back.”

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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