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Q & A: Interview with Rez Gardi, The Young New Zealander of the Year

29 March 2017

Rez Gardi was born in a United Nations refugee camp in Pakistan as her Kurdish family escaped persecution in their home land of Kurdistan. At the age of six, Rez and her family settled in New Zealand.  Arriving with nothing, Rez has sought to use her difficult start in life as motivation to succeed, recently becoming New Zealand’s first Kurdish female lawyer.

Photo of Rez Gardi

Rez works in corporate litigation at New Zealand’s premier law firm, Chapman Tripp, and previously worked at the United Nations Office in Nairobi as a human rights intern. She is passionate about supporting young refugees through a mentoring and support programme she has founded to try and address the under-representation of refugee students in tertiary education, as she believes education is pivotal to changing the future for refugees.

Auckland Branch talks to Rez about being named University of Auckland Young New Zealander of the Year and her career.

Recently, you were named the Young New Zealander of the Year. Congratulations on such an outstanding achievement. What does this award mean to you personally?

This award is recognition of the hard work and passion we put in to our plight for justice and equality. I say ‘we’ because nothing I have achieved has been done alone. This award is not only for me. It is for my family who are still fighting for the right to be free from oppression and to be free to express their identity, in particular, my parents who risked their lives for a safer future for us. It is for my Kurdish people, who are the world’s largest nation without a state and one of the most oppressed people of modern history. It is for the millions of voiceless refugees, globally, who drive my passion and give me purpose.

I hope this award gives me a bigger platform to be a voice for the voiceless, to advocate for their rights, and to empower more young people to be champions of change. I hope that I can be a role model for refugee youth, and other marginalised youth in New Zealand to have confidence in their potential.

I hope it 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

You arrived in New Zealand at the age of six as a refugee. Was there anything that inspired you to become a lawyer and at what age did you know that you wanted to pursue a legal career?

I am Kurdish. We are the world’s largest nation without a state. There are approximately 40 million Kurds around the world, with no country of our own.

Until very recently, it was illegal to speak Kurdish in public in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.  You could be imprisoned for having Kurdish music on and “disappear” for raising a Kurdish flag and advocating for Kurdish rights.  When I first visited my family in 2005, I had to cross three different borders to visit my family.  When I was entering Turkey, they confiscated all the Kurdish clothes, CDs, posters and flags I had bought as souvenirs.

My parents are political activists.  They fought against the persecution of Kurds.  They fought for Kurdish rights and independence.  With the Iran/Iraq tension, Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds, and all vestige of Kurdish existence banned in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the 80s were an especially dangerous period for Kurds.  My parents were forced to escape or risk death.

They had been married only 5 years, but this was the end of everything; everything they had just started.  My mother pressed my infant brother to her breast and my father held my sister tight as they neared the border between Iran and Pakistan. They sat silently, holding their breath, waiting for the sound of the loaded gun as the Iranian solider checked the cargo truck. They waited for what they thought would be their unceremonious end - but no sound came. Cautiously, my father opened his eyes.  The Iranian soldier had put his gun down; hesitantly and slowly.  He looked at his comrade and said: “Nothing in this one.” They turned and left. My family had survived.

I came to know about all the persecution and injustice the Kurds had suffered and I often thought to myself "how could I possibly do anything to help?” I wanted to dedicate my life to the Kurdish cause, as my parents had, but wasn’t sure how or in what form.

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 and contributing to the fight for justice, equality, and independence.

As a youth advisor to the New Zealand Red Cross you will assist the New Zealand Red Cross in the planning of the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement in 2017, which New Zealand will co-Chair.  Can you please describe what these roles involve and do you have any specific goals and aspirations in relation to them?

The Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR) is an annual event which lies at the root of strengthened cooperation between governments, NGOs and UNHCR.  The ATCR allows for open and frank dialogue, and strives to produce positive outcomes by forging collaborative approaches to global resettlement.  It provides an opportunity to address a wide range of policy and procedural matters, including advocacy, capacity building and operational support.  An important outcome is the tripartite relationship itself, which promotes transparency and stimulates the development of new and innovative ways to solve problems and combine resources to improve resettlement for refugees.

My role as a youth advisor is to ensure that refugee youth perspectives are taken into consideration throughout the planning of the ATCR and that refugee youth are consulted in a real and meaningful way about the resettlement process and their experiences.  It is about ensuring that refugee youth have their voices heard and represent themselves rather than having organisations and governments speak on their behalf.

You are a global refugee youth advocate.  In 2016 you represented New Zealand at the Global Refugee Youth Consultations, annual UNHCR NGO in Geneva and the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges.  Can you tell us about that experience and what you learned from it?

The Global Refugee Youth Consultations (GRYC) were conceived of and organised by the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC).  This was the first time in history that so many refugee youth were gathered to discuss and address the challenges refugee youth face globally.

Seldom consulted, frequently overlooked, and often unable to fully participate in decision making, the talents, energy, and potential of refugee youth remain largely untapped.  As a global refugee youth advocate, I pushed for change. Refugee youth want the same things young people everywhere want: to be consulted, to be listened to, to contribute, to engage, and to be part of solutions.  We want opportunities, education, employment, and inclusion.

UNHCR and WRC undertook the GRYC to amplify youth “voices” in decisions that affect us.  The GRYC included 1,267 young people who participated in 56 national or sub-national consultations held in 22 countries between October 2015 and June 2016. The GRYC were the beginning of a process—a process that must continue to develop the leadership, capacity, and futures of refugee youth everywhere.

Through the GRYC, we analysed causes and impacts of the difficulties that young refugees face.  Although the context of each country is specific, and the dynamics of displacement are regionally distinct, the challenges that refugee youth identified are remarkably consistent.  We then brainstormed solutions to the challenges we face, identified how young refugees could take actions ourselves, and made recommendations regarding the types of support we need.

Despite living in different contexts, we found that we consistently suggested a similar package of interconnected actions that could address multiple challenges.  The hundreds of actions and recommendations we developed during the consultations were consolidated thematically to formulate ‘Core Actions’.  These are intended as a framework to help humanitarian actors in working with and for refugee youth, and to shape youth-specific policy, guidance, and programmes.

I also participated in the 2016 annual UNHCR-NGO Consultations, the overarching theme of which was “Youth” and the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, the theme of which was “Children on the Move”.

At both these events, as a global refugee youth advocate youth, I shared about youth-led initiatives around the globe and the potential that youth have to implement their ideas and participate in their own solutions.  I explained why these work – they work because we are uniquely placed.  As youth who have experienced life first-hand as refugees, we know what the main challenges we face are and should be engaged in decision-making in a real and meaningful way.

We, as the youth, have a vision for our future and through youth empowerment and engagement we are able to deliver results to protect each other and young children.  We can engage in meaningful ways by being flexible, practical and effective in anticipating and responding to the challenges we face.

Too often we hear buzz words like “the future leaders”.  But we are already leaders.  We are already leading initiatives, globally, that have a real impact.  I urged states, NGOs and the UNHCR to act now in supporting the participation of youth in our own solutions.

Currently, you are working on projects for refugee youth in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Nelson, what are the main objectives of these projects?

The main objectives of the projects I am involved in are to foster and support participation, leadership, and empowerment opportunities for young refugees, and to create spaces for young refugees to ensure they have an avenue to voice their opinions and be heard.  Ultimately, the aim is to engage refugee youth in decision-making in decisions that affect them, and to empower them to advocate for themselves and others.

Education is pivotal to changing the future for refugees and without education, an entire generation is at risk.  This is why I have established a youth-led initiative “Empower”.  Empower is a refugee youth mentoring and support initiative aimed at addressing the underrepresentation of refugees in higher education.  The aim is twofold.  Firstly, the aim is to help secondary students transition to higher education and pursue meaningful careers of their choice through peer to peer mentoring.  Secondly, the aim is support students into tertiary education by guiding them through the enrolment and application process and then mentoring them throughout their study to ensure their success.  This mentoring programme will help foster mutually rewarding relationships by bringing together former refugees who will act as role models and empower newly resettled refugees or younger refugee background students, and also non-refugee background New Zealanders to help with social integration and the for the betterment of the refugee resettlement process.

I have led consultations in Auckland and Wellington to empower youth and encourage their participation by finding out where their interests and passions lie.

I have consultations coming up with refugee youth in Christchurch, Hamilton, Dunedin, Palmerston North and Napier over the next few months.

Recently, as part of my role on the Red Cross National Youth Panel, I have started working with my team on running an orientation for refugee youth who have just arrived in New Zealand to give them a proper introduction in to New Zealand and what to expect.  A number of former refugee resettlement volunteers who helped families resettle will be helping with this as currently the resettlement programme is very adult-focused and family oriented.  We believe it’s crucial to have a youth aspect to it.  This allows us to work very closely with the newly resettled refugees helping them integrate into New Zealand, maximise the opportunities available and to reach their potential.  We have plans to roll this out in Wellington too with our team of Red Cross youth volunteers from there.

You are currently working in corporate litigation at Chapman Tripp.  Why did you choose to go into corporate litigation and what do you hope to achieve from your legal career?

I have just started my second year at Chapman Tripp and, already, it has been an invaluable experience.  I have had the opportunity to work with, and learn from, some of New Zealand’s top lawyers.  I am learning to develop skills in so many different areas including my advocacy skills and communication skills which inevitably make me more efficient when it comes to my volunteer work.

You are the first New Zealand female Kurdish lawyer and the founder of a Kurdish Youth Association in New Zealand.  How do you manage to balance your professional career and all your humanitarian work with your personal life?

Lots of coffee and no sleep! But really, it may sound clich√©, but it’s all about balance.  I work really hard but ensure that I get time to relax as that makes me more productive.  When I’m not spending time with my beautiful nieces, I enjoy playing netball, kickboxing, and reading - although I must admit I’m a major nerd!  All my books are either legal or political non-fiction books.

Of course, there 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.  So much that it doesn’t feel like work because it is so rewarding seeing the end result and seeing the positive outcomes for refugee youth.

I am very lucky to be surrounded by a team of supportive people at home, at work, and in the community.

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.  From day one, Chapman Tripp has supported me to pursue my refugee-related volunteer work and encouraged me to take all the opportunities that have come up.

To what extent do you think being a lawyer has enabled you to accommplish so much in the humanitarian field?  Can you think of any specific examples that you could share with us?

Being a lawyer has trained me to be efficient and incredibly organised in a very fast-paced environment. I have learnt how to deal with immense time pressure and how to effectively prioritise different work and deadlines.  I have had to learn how to be adaptable and flexible – you may not always get to do work the way you like it but you’ve always got to ensure it’s of very high quality.

I have also developed a set of skills that are relevant to law but also transferable to my humanitarian work.  Paying attention to detail, thinking outside the box, trying to come up with solutions, thinking about other possible options or risks that the client may not have thought of and always always trying to be one step ahead.  This has been what has set me apart in my humanitarian work.  Being a lawyer has trained my mind to think critically at every phase, to always question and think outside the box.  I have come up with creative solutions by being able to jump from one perspective to another and to always consider the less obvious options.

Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years’ time?

It is incredibly difficult to imagine where I see myself in 10 years’ time because there are so many opportunities out there.  But I’ve got to remember the reason that I went to law school in the first place and the reason that I wanted to pursue a career in law; and that was to help my Kurdish people.  That’s where it all started and that’s what I’m really passionate about and that’s how I became motivated to bring about positive change in my community.  So, ultimately, I think it will be something to do with helping Kurdish people and other oppressed and marginalised groups of people, worldwide.

Last updated on the 29th March 2017