The first lawyer in her family, Mahafrin Variava was raised in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi and it’s safe to say that her childhood was a unique experience.
“I grew up among sandstorms, sheikhs and a blend of cultures and languages,” says Ms Variava, an immigration lawyer with Turner Hopkins in Auckland.
“My sister and I had the opportunity to experience fasting in Ramadan with our Muslim friends – despite not being Muslim – and Eid, Diwali and Christmas – the beauty of diversity.
“We studied at an international school and our teachers came from South Africa, the UK, New Zealand, Australia and the USA. Our classmates came from all those countries, but also from Pakistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Iran and India. We were very lucky and privileged to have had those experiences, because it made it easier for us to integrate into school when we arrived here.
“My parents come from humble beginnings and perhaps one of the most important decisions they made was to move to New Zealand.
“As migrants we faced quite a struggle when we arrived here. In hindsight, it was a struggle worth facing because we eventually reaped the rewards and continue to use every opportunity we have to give back to our community in whatever way we can.”
After graduating with an LLB from the University of Waikato in 2012, Mahafrin took some time to re-evaluate what she wanted to do with what she had learned at law school.
“I completed further study at AUT with conflict resolution as my major and then decided that it was time to start practising. I’ve enjoyed the work that I’ve done so far and working with Turner Hopkins has been an amazing experience.”
Letter to law school inspired by history
Her interest in law came after studying the Persian Empire and finding out about what can be regarded as the world’s first human rights charter.
“Religiously, I belong to the Zoroastrian faith. A faith that is thousands of years old and whose followers have suffered years of religious persecution.
“The faith originated in the then Persian Empire. Many Zoroastrian children are raised with the story of how our ancestors eventually had to escape to India to avoid forceful conversion.
“In Year 13, I was pleasantly surprised when we began studying about the Persian Empire and, in particular, Alexander III of Macedonia.
“There were mentions of Zoroastrianism, human rights and the great Persian kings. I decided my end of year project was going to be on the Persian Empire – its rise and demise. As I continued my research I learnt about the Cyrus Cylinder which was a clay cylinder on which Cyrus II (the King of Persia) decreed many reforms including the right to religious freedom and racial equality.
“It was empowering to know that what is now recognised as the world’s first charter of human rights was in some way a part of my history and ancestry. It was this that inspired me to write my letter to Waikato Law School that very weekend.”
Helping migrants understand their rights
Mahafrin Variava says being able to help migrants understand their rights is what motivates her.
“In today’s political and social landscape, there is a certain narrative associated with migrants. Let’s be real, it’s not a positive one. This narrative has been developed over the years and grows from deeply rooted stereotypes, a fear of the unknown, a lack of motivation to understand who migrants are and the mixed messages sent by mainstream media.
“When I graduated, I asked myself ‘how I can use my degree to contribute to the betterment of the lives of those around me?’. The answer was: being able to advocate for those who struggled with processes that were unclear or, that they did not understand due to language, cultural or religious barriers.
“We deal with many migrants who are not well informed, do not understand their rights, their responsibilities, the processes and what information they need to provide. This is where things get complicated and where we step in.
“The harmony of the tough parts and the beautiful parts of immigration law is what makes my job interesting. I enjoy the work I do and there is nothing more rewarding than witnessing that in some way or another, the work my colleagues and I do shape the futures and lives of our clients in New Zealand.”
Embracing the unexpected
At law school she says she was “very lucky” with how the course was arranged.
“I completed an immigration law paper at school and was fortunate to be taught by Doug Tennent who was one of my favourite lecturers in law school and also one of the writers of the textbook Immigration and Refugee Law. It was his class that sparked my interest in immigration law.
“He taught his classes with such passion and enthusiasm and this resonated with me to the point where I understood that the benefits of our advocacy in the Tribunal and with Immigration New Zealand would lead to life changing results for our clients.
“You can never truly be prepared for what the real world throws your way. Whether you work for a big firm, a mid-sized firm, a smaller firm in the suburbs or a boutique law firm – you’ve got be open to any opportunity. And, although each specialisation has its pros and cons, all of us face difficult and demanding clients, we get thrown into the deep end and sometimes we find ourselves cancelling Friday night drinks with friends because we’ve got an appearance on Monday.
“It’s important that we embrace the unexpected. That’ll only make us capable to face the next challenge.”
“There’s nothing like reading a good book or spending time with friends and family over food, drinks and board games,” she says when talking about her downtime.
“A good time would include a game of Risk or Ticket to Ride after a night out of trying different meals and cocktails at different restaurants.