Sabira Nouri (Photo: Elodie Berthe)
Sabira Nouri (Photo: Elodie Berthe)

SocietyJune 16, 2020

Essential Kiwi Legend: The Afghan refugee who became an emergency nurse

Sabira Nouri (Photo: Elodie Berthe)
Sabira Nouri (Photo: Elodie Berthe)

Sabira Nouri exemplifies fierce determination to never give up. A former refugee, nurse, avid traveller, cancer survivor and Covid-19 essential worker, Sabira has been defying the odds her whole life.

When 15-year-old Sabira Nouri’s plane touched down at 1am on the tarmac of an eerily quiet Auckland International Airport, she had already faced more than most do in a lifetime. Walking through customs with her parents and five siblings, Sabira left the fear of war at the customs gate, carrying with her the essentials to start her new Kiwi life: the strength to persevere, a decent dose of confidence and a hunger to learn.

This is her incredible story.

Living invisibly

Sabira and her family’s journey to safety and opportunities spans two long decades, beginning in the midst of the Soviet-Afghan War. Like millions of other Afghan people, when war broke out in their home of Afghanistan in the 70s, Sabira’s parents and grandparents fled to neighbouring Pakistan.

Pakistan is where Sabira and most of her siblings were born, and where she lived until she was almost 10 years old. While her memories of this time are joyful, surrounded by family and love, she knew that her opportunities were limited. Sabira’s parents knew this too, so in time made the risky decision to move to Iran in the hope of a better life.

But her family soon realised that this hope was in vain.

“In Iran, we basically lived invisibly. We were not legally allowed to rent a house, to work, to go to school. If we went to a doctor, they wouldn’t see us,” recalls Sabira. “It was a very different experience from Pakistan, so that’s when we really felt we were refugees.”

Despite her yearning to learn, because they were stateless, Sabira and her siblings were not allowed to attend school. They spent most of their days holed up inside their home, being taught by their dad how to read, basic mathematics and some English.

Reflecting on their lives in Iran, Sabira remembers how difficult it was to keep up hope.

“When you’re living in a country as an illegal immigrant or refugee, it’s very hard to see the future and what it holds, because you are focusing on just today or tomorrow.”

“It was tough. What kept us going, as kids, was my parents not giving up on us. We thought, ‘If our parents haven’t given up, something good has got to come out of this.’”

The Nouri family approached the United Nations (UN) for protection. They eventually received refugee status and were offered resettlement in Canada. But then, in 2001, the World Trade Center was attacked. Visas were put on hold for people from many countries, including theirs. The family’s will to hold on to hope was put to the test once more.

“We felt like we were orphans waiting to be adopted. Then, the UN approached my dad about the possibility of resettlement in a place called New Zealand. We had never heard the country’s name or where it was,” Sabira chuckles.

“I had uncles who lived in Europe and one of them said to us: ‘New Zealand is a beautiful country, I heard it’s considered to be the paradise of this world, you should go,’ so we said yes!”

Sabira as a child in Pakistan and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in New Zealand (Photos: Supplied)

New goals for a new home

After five years without schooling, Sabira had one goal: education. She was excited to finally be able to attend school and was determined to succeed. Having to learn a new language didn’t worry her – it was already the fifth language she had learnt. Over the next four years, Sabira worked to catch up on all the years of schooling she had missed.

“By the end of year 10, I got Excellence in all my subjects. They called my name at the assembly to receive an award – I didn’t believe it!”

These results were evidence to Sabira that anything was possible, even her most important goal. “When I arrived in New Zealand I told myself that within 10 years of being here, I would have a bachelor’s degree in my hands. I didn’t know how I would get there, but I didn’t care, that was my goal.”

Sabira Nouri (Photo: Supplied)

Searching for identity

Sabira’s four years of hard work paid off – she graduated from high school with flying colours. Soon after graduating, she moved to Australia to spend time with family. While there, Sabira set herself two new goals: visit Afghanistan, the country of her family that she barely knew, and begin her nursing degree.

In 2011, Sabira set off on a solitary journey to Kabul, a journey to discover a vital part of her identity.

“For me, visiting Afghanistan was very good in the sense of finding myself, who I am. Not just being a former refugee or a refugee born in Pakistan. I am more than that.”

“When we arrived in New Zealand, a lot of people asked me where I was from or where my motherland was. I wondered what it was supposed to mean – ‘Is it a place where you have some sort of connection?’ To me, nowhere felt like a homeland.”

“When I landed in Afghanistan, I remember thinking ‘Oh, this is it!’. I finally felt that connection. I knew no one there, but as soon as I landed and was greeted in a language I knew, I had a feeling that I had never felt in other countries. I suddenly understood what people meant by motherland.”

During her visit to Afghanistan, Sabira says she discovered her roots and more about her family’s history and culture, while also realising how much New Zealand was now part of her.

“After a few weeks, I got homesick. I really wanted to go back to New Zealand. I wondered: ‘Which one is my country?’ I realised I had quite a bit of Kiwi in me.”

“My Afghan family would say, ‘You do this differently’ or ‘that’s not our culture’. I had picked up all these things that are Kiwi. I had created my own – a bit of Afghan, a bit of Kiwi. I’m a blend of the two cultures,” Sabira says with a smile.

“I feel like society tells us to pick one place, but home is where your heart is and your heart is not always in one place. So, to me, my motherland is Afghanistan and my home is New Zealand.”

Sabira in Afghanistan in 2011 (Photo: Supplied)

Reaching her goals

On returning from Afghanistan and with a firmer understanding of who she is, Sabira began her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Wintec in Hamilton. She had always been interested in the medical field and wanted to stay in the Waikato, so nursing was the perfect fit.

On March 25, 2015, almost exactly 1o years after setting foot on New Zealand soil, Sabira held a degree in her hand. She had defied the odds and achieved her goals through sheer determination, proving many people – including herself – wrong.

“If someone had told me years ago when I was in Iran that, in 10 years’ time, you’re going to have a bachelor’s degree and the best job you wanted, I would have laughed. And yet there I was. It was an amazing feeling.”

Alongside her degree, Sabira was also accepted into the very competitive Nurse Entry to Practice (NETP) Programme, which included working as a new graduate in the emergency department of Waikato Hospital.

“I was so happy and ecstatic,” Sabira says of the day she received the good news. “I remember screaming and hugging and kissing everyone in my family when I got the confirmation email. That moment made me feel like the whole journey of settling here was worth it.”

Photo: Elodie Berthe

Fighting back

Sabira had been working for several years when, in 2017, her life was put on hold when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia – a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Immediately, she was put on leave from work and admitted as a patient to the same hospital she had been working in only months before.

“I got very weak, so worked on recovering and stayed home for a year.

“While recovering at home, I felt like I had lost myself all over again,” she admits. “I had developed my identity and it was so crazy because I am a person of faith and I thought, ‘My career, the person I was, the things I believed – how can a tiny thing take away everything I built for so long?’ It was very tough for me.

“Cancer is something that shakes you up and changes you; you’re never the same person you were before.”

Knowing that she needed to rediscover who she was after facing such a challenging ordeal, Sabira convinced her specialist to let her travel when she was close to recovered. Once she had the green light, she was off. Sabira travelled across Europe by herself for six months, visiting 10 countries.

“My energy levels at the time weren’t great, but I remember going out and exploring all day, coming back to the hostel and I was exhausted, but I kept doing it every day, over and over. I loved it.

“When I came back to New Zealand, I felt like a completely different person and found myself again and my confidence, it was really satisfying. Then, the cancer didn’t bother me so much as I realised I didn’t want it to stop me from doing things.”

In Cappadocia, Turkey (Photo: Supplied)

Essential worker

The cancer also couldn’t stop Sabria’s drive. On arriving home to Hamilton, she was determined to work again. Her specialist advised her to find an environment less stressful than the emergency department, so Sabira applied and was accepted to a nursing position with interventional radiology.

“I didn’t realise, but in nuclear medicine, most of our clients have a history of cancer, that’s the reason why they come for the scan or because they have been diagnosed.

“With my personal experience, I have a better level of understanding with my patients now.”

When Covid-19 reached New Zealand shores and the country moved into lockdown, Sabira was still working in the hospital as an essential worker. “We were still open. The hospital had a policy that it would only work on the most urgent cases; people who have cancer or are going into surgery.

“It is very humbling to be able to be there for someone in their most vulnerable time, it makes you feel good that you can do that for them.

“I wasn’t on the frontline, but we would get Covid patients from the emergency department or the intensive care unit. Everyone in hospital was under stress – it’s constantly in your mind that you don’t want to catch it. Because of my health history, I had to be careful and the hospital staff were supportive.”

During the Covid-19 response, as in normal times, Sabira prides herself on caring for her patients the best she can. She says she’s pleased to be able to help people right now, while admitting that exploring more of the world is still in her mind.

“It’s a really strange time that we’re living in now. I hope this is over soon and borders open so I can travel again.”

All across Aotearoa, thousands of former refugees are doing amazing things in their communities. Some are essential workers who supported Kiwis during the Covid-19 lockdown. Over the next few days, in the run-up to World Refugee Day on June 20 and in collaboration with the New Zealand Red Cross, we’re sharing some of their stories.

Keep going!