The journey fleeing home in search of safety and settling in Christchurch has led former refugee Masood Chakari to be an advocate for New Zealanders in need.
While most New Zealanders stayed at home during the level four lockdown, a few essential people were allowed to carry on with their front-facing work to ensure the country continued to run. Many of these jobs usually go unnoticed or are undervalued, but these workers risked their health to ensure that the rest of the country had access to supplies, health care, transport and other services. They became our Covid-19 heroes.
One of these heroes is Masood Chakari. As a case manager for Work and Income, Masood worked with kindness, empathy and eagerness to make sure New Zealander having a tough time could access support through food, clothing and financial grants.
Masood has a long history of reaching out to people in need, whoever they may be, having been one of these people before.
This is Masood’s story.
On the move
Like millions of other Afghans, Masood and his family travelled a long and strenuous journey to reach safety – to a place where they no longer needed to fear bombs and death threats and could sleep peacefully.
In the early 90s, the war in Afghanistan forced many people out of the country, including the Chakari family who fled to neighbouring Pakistan.
“Life was hard for us there, it was miserable actually. My dad was jobless. It’s not good for refugees there,” says Masood.
After a difficult decade in Pakistan, including five years in a refugee camp with little prospect of a bright future, Masood decided to go back to Afghanistan on his own.
Masood worked as an IT technician in the capital city of Kabul for US Aid, the United States Agency for International Development which is responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance. But at only 17 years old and alone, Masood soon realised Afghanistan was still unsafe for him.
“I started receiving death threats from the Taliban, telling me I can’t work with the Americans. I suddenly had no other option than leaving. I fled to Malaysia.”
Masood was granted refugee status by the United Nations in Malaysia, who recognised the danger he’d be in if he were to be sent back to Afghanistan. Then, two years later, Immigration New Zealand offered him resettlement in New Zealand – a new start in life Masood welcomed with excitement.
“I remember I arrived in New Zealand on 26 October 2007. I don’t forget this date, as it was one of the happiest days in my life.”
A home, despite the shakes
Settling in New Zealand was an emotional time for Masood, not only because it marked the start of a new life but because it was also when Masood was reunited with his brother who had arrived as a refugee a few years prior. They hadn’t seen each other for five years.
When his brother visited him at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre where all quota refugees spend their first few weeks in the country, Masood told him how eager he was to start his new life.
“I told my brother I wanted to work hard. I arrived on Friday in Christchurch and on Monday I was already working in an Indian takeaway shop.”
“It was great as my brother was already living in Christchurch. I was lucky to have him there, he was a great support.”
Masood was eventually able to bring his family, who was still living in a precarious situation in Pakistan, to Christchurch to be reunited.
In time, Masood grew fond of Christchurch, but his love for the city truly set in when the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes happened. Masood and his family took time off after each quake: a few days in Queenstown first then, then three weeks in Auckland in 2011.
“After three weeks, we missed Christchurch so we came back, despite the damage caused by the earthquakes.”
“I don’t know what it is about Christchurch, it just feels like home – the people, the size of the city, my Kiwi cricket friends.”
Following the 2011 earthquakes, New Zealand Red Cross supported thousands of Cantabrians to recover, providing psychosocial support to reuniting families and providing essential items for people out of their homes. Masood was one of these recipients.
“After the earthquake, I actually received support from Red Cross. I accessed a grant to help me get back on my feet. It was great,” explains Masood.
Hope despite a dark day
Christchurch had a long history of welcoming former refugees, but the earthquakes put a hold on refugee settlement in the city. For eight years, no new families were settled there under the refugee quota system.
However, as soon as Christchurch was able to offer adequate support, the city once again welcomed former refugees with open arms. In early March 2019, 22 people landed in Christchurch.
It was also around this time that Masood took on the role of cross cultural worker with New Zealand Red Cross. Masood became a connection between the community and newly arrived Afghan families. Through his personal experience and knowledge of both cultures, he supported families to make a new start in New Zealand, just like he had all those years ago.
Then, on March 15, Masood’s role took an unexpected turn. On that day, 51 lives were tragically lost when an act of extreme hate and violence unfolded in a place of worship and peace. Masood became a confidante, an adviser, and an interpreter to people with refugee backgrounds as well as to the wider community.
“I wasn’t trained to do this, I was only trained to support refugees when they come here to give them some hope, give them support, and make sure they don’t feel lonely. But the shooting changed everything.”
“I worked there for 12 days in a row, long hours, with families and the community. I know five languages and there were people from all over, so I was able to speak people’s language, which was appreciated.”
Though he’s proud of the work that he did during this time, Masood recalls 15 March as “a dark day that changed everything”. When he speaks about it, his voice is thick with emotion.
“Families would tell me ‘we left Afghanistan and came here to have a better life, and this happens?’ They were crying and they were scared, it was hard.”
“I shared my personal experience: that it had never happened in the 12 years I’d been here, that most people are nice here and bad people are everywhere. I told them not to worry.”
His eagerness to support vulnerable people pushed Masood to look for a full-time job where he could do just that. He approached the Red Cross’ Pathways to Employment team who assist former refugees to find work. The team encouraged him to apply for a case manager role at Work and Income, which he did.
“Ten years in Pakistan taught me to help and support people. I dreamt of helping vulnerable people.”
“Red Cross helped me with my application for the case manager role. We worked on my CV and interview questions. Then I was offered the job!”
In February 2020, Masood started his training with Work and Income.
“We provide financial and hardship assistance for Kiwis, granting benefits for those who lost their jobs, those who have medical issues and those who are sole parents.”
After just over a month in the job, Masood was confronted with another unexpected situation with Covid-19 and the strict lockdown that followed. Masood became an essential worker and was allowed to go to the office every working day of the lockdown. He and his team couldn’t see clients face-to-face, but people who needed assistance were provided support over the phone.
“People call us because they need help. I always welcome them and want to help them. When someone has lost their job and their hope and comes to us, I can help.”
“When I supported people during the lockdown, I felt proud. As long as I can help them, I am happy.”
“I feel very proud to help Kiwis because New Zealand helped me get from Afghanistan. I’m giving back.”
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.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.