My name is Ashleigh Ali and I came to New Zealand from Kurdistan as a refugee. I am 27 years old and I am doing a PhD at AUT University in Auckland.

In the mid 80’s, my parents fled Kurdistan because of the violence – the bombings, the gas and genocide, and the war. They travelled to Iran first and then to Pakistan, where they stayed for 8 years before being accepted to New Zealand as refugees. My Mum was pregnant around the time that they moved to Pakistan, and so I was around 8 years old when we came here.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation. Geographically, the region is North of Iraq but it is also split across a bit of Syria, a bit of Turkey, a bit of Iran and Iraq, and a tiny bit of Armenia. So it's just this region split between 5 countries. The Kurds are fighting for independence.

When we first came to New Zealand, we lived at the refugee camp for a few days, which was amazing. I had never seen fog; I remember waking up one day and thinking, “Oh my god, what is this?” It was so beautiful. I remember living with people from Somalia and some Arabic people as well. I remember my teacher, she always smelt like cigarettes.

We didn’t know anything, not even how to say hello. When we moved from the refugee camp, I started primary school, and that was very hard. I couldn’t speak to any children and the other children were quite mean and I was bullied.

At first, I didn't say anything. I think I was embarrassed at the time; I didn't want to be complaining. I didn't really try to stand up for myself. I didn't have many Kiwi friends.

At school, we always had to stand in line when the bell rang after lunch, and there was this one girl would always push me. One day I got really angry, and I slapped her across the face. I could see my handprint on her face when school finished at 3pm. After that everybody was nice to me.

I had a lot of Kurdish friends, because I couldn't speak English well. We came here together with other people from Kurdistan, so I felt closer to them.

I learnt the language pretty fast. I really liked reading, so I would always read. I like to watch movies and learn, I was always wanting to know what was happening; I think that came from me being bullied. I didn't know anything, so I was not going to let that stop me.

***

When we fled, we had no idea what was going to happen so we carried as much stuff as we could to start a new life. My mum still has the cooking pots that she brought from Iran, we still have blankets that we brought from Kurdistan. I don’t know if we have photos or not, but mum looked after all of this stuff. Stuff that we don't even use anymore and she actually wanted to throw away, but I love it.

My object is a clay pot and it represents saving money. This is from my grandmother. When we left Kurdistan we had nothing. We packed stuff in our bag, like the refugees you see leaving Syria today. I keep it in my room to remind me that we went from nothing to something. So I think I have something more today than that we had.

Back in the day when we were new to New Zealand, we would have chicken once a month, we'd have one glass pepsi or coke and if you spilt your drink, you had to wait another month to drink it.

This object also inspires me to pay it forward and help people through my charity work in Kurdistan. Every time I feel let down, I remind myself that there are people who have it a lot worse. I have a roof over my head, and I can open the fridge and eat. I have friends and family. Some people don’t even have that.

***


The journey from Kurdistan to Iran and Pakistan was difficult for all the families that fled. Our family stayed in Pakistan for a few years but there was a lot of hardship. All the Kurds would protest and ask for refugee status. At one point, one person died and all the families, 60 or 70 people, got arrested. I have never asked my parents about it. Not long after that, we moved to New Zealand with my whole family.

I have a sister and two older brothers. I'm the youngest in the family. And my parents and my Dad's brothers and two of his cousins; we all travelled together.

I try to stay connected with my Kurdish side and we have community gatherings, we have Kurdish parties and weddings. When we first moved here we would have a gathering at least once a week where everybody would cook and have a big lunch, with 200-300 of us. It was quite nice, it was a tight community.

Over time, everybody got busy. Now we barely have any gatherings. I can’t claim to know much about my culture, But I really want to learn more about it. No matter how much I try, I can't be detached from it, because end of the day, that's my culture. I can never be a proper kiwi.

The first time I went back to visit and met my Mum’s side of the family, I saw what Kurdish people are actually like. That’s when I felt connected with the culture.

When I have friends come over, I always cook Kurdish food even when they're not Kurds. Kiwis often don't even know how to eat the food. Growing up in New Zealand, I have a regular kiwi side – going out with my friends and enjoying weekends.

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