Leaving their lives behind

Ghadair Alshemari was 6 when her family was forced to flee Kuwait after the Gulf War.

They escaped to Jordan where the family sheltered in a small village. Though it was safer than their lives in Kuwait, the living conditions took a bit of getting used to.

“I had a Cinderella moment one day when I was sweeping out our house,” says Ghadair with a smile.

“We went from living in a fancy home with maids, to sleeping on concrete floors in mud huts, it was a big shock.”

There was little semblance of normalcy in Jordan though. The family wasn’t safe and Ghadair’s parents worried about their future.

Arriving in New Zealand

The Alshemari’s were granted refugee status and told their new homes would be in New Zealand.

“We were excited about it because we had heard there were lots of sheep there,” Ghadair reminisces fondly, “we were sad to leave Jordan but looked forward to what the future held.”

Ghadair and her family arrived in Auckland where they spent six weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre before being taken to Wellington to start their new lives.

“It was scary arriving in Wellington,” she says, “there were only a couple of other refugee families with us and everyone looked so different to us.”

The size of the family meant there were four different refugee support volunteers there to greet them and the Alshemari’s were split into two different houses.

For Ghadair, starting a new life in New Zealand also meant starting a new school once again. Their volunteers made the transition easier, walking the children to their classes in Epuni every morning.

“We’re still really close to the volunteers who helped us,” Ghadair says, “I think of them as family and even though I live in Auckland now I catch-up with them whenever I come down to Wellington.”

Giving back

Ghadair is grateful for the opportunities New Zealand gave her and is looking to give back to the country. She’s running for her local board in Auckland and has graduated from university three times, soon to be four as she pursues a Masters in Applied Science.

Ghadair hopes she can help build bridges between ethnicities in New Zealand.

“I want diversity and representation at every level of government,” Ghadair says confidently, “I want everybody’s voice to be heard, just like my voice was heard. I’d rather die knowing I tried to make a difference in people’s lives than living in the past.”

Ghadair also has a support network for women and girls struggling with identity issues that former refugees face as they balance their cultural heritage with their new Kiwi identities.

It’s a struggle Ghadair knows well. She rarely practiced her faith growing up but began learning more about Islam and teaching herself Arabic when she was 19.

As her public profile grows, Ghadair hopes more people from refugee backgrounds will be encouraged to maintain links with their heritage while also embracing their new homes.