Kiwi Legend: the Somalian refugee who became a mental health hero

Our new series produced by the New Zealand Red Cross profiles people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home. Our fourth Kiwi Legend: Sahra Ahmed, who fled Somalia at the age of nine to become a nurse and mental health advocate for her local community in Christchurch. 

Sahra Ahmed vividly remembers arriving at Auckland airport in August 1990. She was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with absolutely no idea what the weather in New Zealand would be like.

She stepped off the plane and was immediately shocked by how cold it was. She made her way to immigration where she asked for asylum.

“Staff at the airport were friendly and helpful,” she says.

“We were taken to a hostel for asylum seekers. It was early in the evening so it was getting dark and cold. I remember seeing few cows on a farm and thinking it looks like the picture on the Anchor Milk tins I used to see, not connecting Anchor to New Zealand.”

Sahra, 20, and her brother, 17, were more than 14,000kms from their home country of Somalia and alone for the first time in their young lives.

They were both born and raised in the Somali capital of Mogadishu during the 1970s and Sahra has fond memories of her childhood.

“For me childhood was a really good time and I remember a lot of happiness.”

She was surrounded by family with aunts, uncles, and cousins living nearby. She played with the children in her neighbourhood and had a good education.

“I remember talking and laughing with my friends and walking through the houses. I remember going to school and speaking our own language and studying Somali literature. For me it was a happy time and I don’t remember any violence, I never saw a gun before coming to New Zealand.”

The country during this period was under a dictatorship, but Sahra says she was protected from a lot of the instability due to her youth.  

“There was a shortage of food and every now and then we’d go to the market and there’d be no sugar or no oil,” she says.

“People were arrested for having a different view, those things weren’t something that directly concerned me as a child though. But I guess that was the beginning of the falling of our country.”

It wasn’t until she was nine that Sahra realised things weren’t as they should be. She was woken up early in the morning by a loud bang. It was a sound she’d never heard before.

“The grownups were whispering and I could tell there was something going on. By about midday I’d heard that there was a failed coup.”

Nonetheless, life continued on for Sahra and it would be another decade before things deteriorated to the point where she was forced to flee. During this period, people began migrating to the capital from regional areas, the school and healthcare systems slowly deteriorated, and people began to protest.

Somali social and political life is based on a tribal system and it was when Sahra’s tribe began being persecuted, her and her family realised they had to do something. So Sahra and her brother, as the two oldest siblings, fled to New Zealand to claim asylum.

Building a new life

Creating a new life in New Zealand was exciting and challenging for Sahra. It was freeing to be on her own and making her own decisions but at the same time there was so much she didn’t know about her new country.

“The biggest challenges were not knowing how to go about simple things like catching buses and how to keep yourself warm,” she says.

“A lot people think keeping yourself warm is instinctive, but it isn’t. If you come from a hot climate you never needed to think how to keep warm. I wasn’t familiar with wool products and when I was given a wool blanket it gave me hives.”

Finding a job also proved to be quite difficult with employers often turning her down due to a lack of New Zealand work experience.

“It was a bit like a chicken and egg situation,” she reflects.

After spending 18 months in Auckland, Sahra moved to Christchurch, a city she’d been told was smaller and easier to get around. She studied hard and kept herself busy, there were English classes during the day and she enrolled herself in baking classes in the evening.

Trying to keep busy was partly to integrate into her new community and partly to take her mind off her family. They had fled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) until Sahra could sponsor them to come and live in New Zealand.

“To call them on the phone was extremely expensive so I could only call a couple of times a year,” she says.

“Sometimes I would call and find out that I had another young sibling because it had been so long since we’d spoken that I didn’t know that mum was pregnant. There was a big gap in communications.”

Five years after arriving in New Zealand, Sahra received her citizenship. She was ecstatic for a number of reasons, one of them being that it gave her the freedom to visit her family in the UAE.

“It was wonderful, really lovely [to see them again],” she says.

“But there was a lot of change. Mum looked older than I remember her and the family was bigger because three brothers and sisters had been born since I left.”

In 1998, Sahra managed to sponsor her family to come and live in New Zealand.

“It was really great to have my family here and to be able to talk to them all the time. Knowing I can get in my car and see my mum in 10 minutes has been a real highlight of my progression and success in New Zealand.”

Things had certainly started falling into place by this time. She’d finished her nursing degree and married her husband who was an International Delegate with Red Cross, working in public health.

In 1999 she went and joined him in Macedonia where he was working with the IFRC. While she was there, there was an earthquake in Turkey. A lot of the health infrastructure had been destroyed and they were short on nurses. German Red Cross asked her to deploy to Turkey to assist in the field hospital they’d set-up to help with the response.

Sahra found this work incredibly fulfilling and when she returned to New Zealand she applied to become an International Delegate with New Zealand Red Cross.

“I wanted to become a nurse because I care about people and making changes to people’s lives no matter how small,” she says.

Photo: Gemma Snowdon

In 2015 Sahra was deployed to Sierra Leone with New Zealand Red Cross on the Ebola response. She says it has been the highlight of her nursing career.

She wasn’t deaf to the narrative around Ebola though and spoke to her husband and daughter about how they felt. With their support, she accepted the role. Then she called her mum, who was a little less understanding.

“She told me I was going to look for death,” Sahra smiles.

“She was really worried about it. I’m quite a logical person though and knew that there were risks, but there are risks with everything we do. New Zealand Red Cross was really supportive and I was really reassured by the commitment to my care and safety.”

Sahra’s role was as Team Leader for the team that focussed on community support. They registered new patients, provided psychosocial support throughout the stay, and then helped them reintegrate into the community once they were discharged.

“The communities and patients were quite shocked and worried because people would come into the hospital and never come out,” she says.

“A lot of people would be rejected from their community when they went back so our role was to engage with them and explain that people were no longer a risk.”

These days Sahra works for a non-profit that provides primary healthcare services to low income households in Christchurch. She’s also an advocate for mental health awareness, particularly in her own community.

“A lot of people in [Somali] culture understand mental health as someone who has gone completely crazy so there’s no medium ground,” she says.

“Depression, stress, and anxiety are a bit hard to comprehend for some people. I try to educate them to recognise signs of depression and behaviour changes when people are going through things and tell them what support is out there.”

Finding home

Photo: Gemma Snowdon

New Zealand may be home now, but Sahra says her roots still lie in Somalia. She managed to return to the country in 2007 which she says was a surreal experience.

“It was like going to another country, there was absolutely nothing I recognised and everything had changed. Honestly, it was like being dropped in Beijing, I mean I understood the language but everything was different. Even the people looked different.”

Returning to Somalia gave her a greater appreciation of Māori culture.

“It’s quite similar to my culture where you belong no matter how long you’ve been away,” she explains.

“It’s like somebody has saved a seat for you no matter how long you’ve been gone you just fit in. People will say ‘oh you’re the daughter of so-and-so’ and I don’t have to explain who I am or where I come from.”

She explains it being like have biological parents and foster parents. Somalia will always be imprinted on her in much the same way you share DNA with biological parents. But New Zealand is the one that protected and nurtured her to get her to where she is.

“I love New Zealand and I’m loyal to New Zealand because of what it has done for me and that makes me feel Kiwi.”

Sahra Ahmed is a nurse and humanitarian worker. She is part of New Zealand Red Cross’ Kiwi Legends series, profiling people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home.

Previously on Kiwi Legends:

Jorge Sandoval, Chilean refugee turned champion cyclist

Niborom Young, the Cambodian refugee helping others make NZ home

Mitchell Pham, the Vietnamese refugee who became a business leader

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