Wahida Zahedi’s love for Christchurch began with a postcard of the Port Hills, sent from almost 14,700km away. This World Refugee Day, she shares her journey from Afghanistan to her new home.
Christchurch. How can I describe this magical city? The place I now call home. A city full of dreams, happiness, hope, laughter and love. A safe place for me when my own country was not.
I am a former refugee from Afghanistan and I am a Muslim. After March 15, I was in complete shock and disbelief. I didn’t know if I could ever feel the same way about this city that took me in; the city that I have grown to love so much.
But the people of Christchurch changed my mind. What the perpetrator of the terror attack did not realise is that his act of evil would bring our communities closer, even those who he did not think had a right to a home here.
Let me tell you how I came to know this wonderful city.
One afternoon in late 2001 in my small, quiet village in Jaghori in the province of Ghazni, 14,691 km away from New Zealand, my family finally heard from my eldest brother who had fled Afghanistan for his safety. A man who we did not know arrived at our home with some news and a Motorola GSM 3200 cellphone. As the village gathered around, wondering what this mysterious black device was, we heard my brother’s voice. He only had time to say a few words: “Mum, I am safe in a country called New Zealand.”
Over the next few years, my brother sent us a few small gifts, among them photos he had taken around Christchurch and a postcard of the Port Hills lit up at night. I carried these mementos around with me, showing them to friends at school, who teased that maybe I would live there one day. The man with the phone would occasionally make the long trip back to our village so that we could talk to my brother for a few minutes. My brother would tell us stories of Christchurch, walking and biking in the Port Hills, the beaches, a huge botanical garden, the Avon River running through the city and the people there from all different cultures.
For as long as I can remember, Afghanistan has been at war. New Zealand sounded like heaven on Earth. I fell in love with Christchurch. Sometimes I would dream I was there and when I woke up, I’d be so upset.
In 2004, Immigration New Zealand asked us to come to the capital Kabul to be interviewed – my brother had told them about us! A few months later, we were told our application had been successful and we were on our way to our new home through family sponsorship.
I landed in Christchurch with no understanding of the language, culture or lifestyle. Everything was different here – tall buildings made of glass, houses built with concrete and bricks. It was safe, clean and green. For the first time in my life, I met people from different ethnicities. I had so many questions! What are computers, laptops and the Internet? How do people pay bills? What is a shopping mall? What on Earth is an Eftpos card? It wasn’t easy to adjust. I spent many hours watching Dora the Explorer to learn English. I enrolled in Hagley Community College where in my own country, as a female, I wasn’t allowed to go to high school. I was given another opportunity in life and I had to start from scratch.
My family and I would walk down the street and people would pass us with smiles and say ‘hello!’. Wherever we went, even though we did not speak English, people would stop and ask us questions and somehow, we would communicate with each other. It was these interactions that made us know we belonged here.
One of the first things I learned at school in Christchurch was the Māori proverb: “He aha te mea nui o te ao, he tangata he tangata he tangata / What is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people.”
Those words have always stayed with me and I held them even closer after March 15. Christchurch has always shown me that people come first. The amount of love and sympathy our communities received from the people of Christchurch after the terror attack was immensely overwhelming.
People from all ethnicities, faiths, ages and backgrounds came together to stand beside those mourning.
Neighbours knocked on our front doors to check in on us.
Women wore the hijab in solidarity.
Acquaintances and colleagues asked us questions to learn more about our faith.
People we’d never met stood outside our mosques to protect us.
It is going to be a process to rebuild our communities. This Thursday is World Refugee Day, an opportunity for Kiwis to reach out a hand of friendship to former refugees and tell them they are welcome here. Speaking from experience, the smallest gesture can make the biggest difference to someone new to the country.
Just two weeks before the terror attack, myself and other New Zealand Red Cross staff and volunteers welcomed the first former refugees to settle in Christchurch via the quota since the earthquakes. Twenty-two people from Afghanistan and Eritrea disembarked the plane from Auckland after six weeks in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, relieved to have finally found a safe home. It is inconceivable that only 14 days later we were scrambling to track down everyone and make sure they were safe. Thankfully, they were.
But as the events of Friday 15 March fall out of the news cycle, the pain lives on inside many of us. We must not forget. We must continue to be open and understanding, make connections, celebrate the differences and not be afraid to ask questions about things we don’t understand. It’s our responsibility to teach this acceptance to the next generation.
Christchurch is a stronger, more open city than ever before. It is still the city I love.
He aha te mea nui o te ao, he tangata he tangata he tangata.
Wahida Zahedi is a New Zealand Red Cross Settlement Case Worker, working with newly arrived former refugees in Christchurch. She is also a former refugee from Afghanistan.
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