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Radiya Ali has never set foot in her own country. The 24-year-old was born to Eritrean parents who had been forced to flee due to ongoing conflict in their home country.
This was well before Radiya was born and her early childhood memories revolve around a life in Yemen, the country her family had fled to. She had a lot of friends at school and had a happy childhood.
Then one day her parents told her they were moving. It was a bit of a surprise to young Radiya and she vividly remembers a conversation between her parents about the move.
“My aunty was here in New Zealand and she had an opportunity to bring us there under a refugee family reunification visa,” she says.
While they were applying for the visa they moved to Ethiopia for a year which Radiya says was a huge culture shock.
“It was very different [to Yemen] but the good thing was that we had family I’d never met: aunties, cousins, and grandparents. It was really nice.”
It was also an opportunity for Radiya to connect with her cultural heritage. Her family is from the Afar people who mainly inhabit the Afar region of Ethiopia, northern Djibouti, and southern Eritrea.
She began learning the Afar language, which is her parents native tongue, and Arahmaic which is spoken in Ethiopia.
“It was one of the best periods of my life actually,” she says thoughtfully.
“With all the hardship my parents were going through, I was just having the time of my life with the people I met. I made friends with who I’m still connected to.”
She says that for people on the outside it probably didn’t look like her life was changing for the better when she went from Yemen to Ethiopia. However, she suddenly had answers to questions she didn’t know she had.
“I was learning why my skin looks like this, why my hair is this type of hair,” she says gesturing to herself.
“Grandma was enforcing a lot of that which we didn’t have being in a predominantly Arab country [in Yemen]. I really felt like I fitted in. Then coming to New Zealand where I didn’t fit in at all, that was really hard.”
It was 2005 when an 11-year-old Radiya stepped off the plane in New Zealand. Going from a place where she felt she belonged to a completely foreign country wasn’t the only challenge, she was also faced with the prospect of learning a fourth language, English.
She recalls a few things about her early days in Hamilton, one of them being meeting her refugee support volunteer, Maria.
“She was just so lovely and giving, she just wanted to do everything for us,” Radiya says with a smile.
“I still hold it dear to my heart that someone can be so generous. It gave me a really positive start in Hamilton.”
Giving back to New Zealand
Radiya had a bit of a rough time adjusting to her schooling and dropped out in year 12. Her parents were firm with her and told her she had to find a job if she wasn’t studying. After working for a couple of years she decided to give her education another go and enrolled in a university prep course.
“I thought I was going to work in human resources but then after a semester I was like ’NOPE’,” she laughs.
“I was one of those kids that didn’t know what they wanted to be but I knew that I wanted to work with people and help people.”
Eventually one of her friends suggested she look into social work. She took the advice but was hesitant about whether or not it was for her.
“I thought ‘I can’
It was that desire to help people that convinced Radiya to give it a go though and she enrolled in a bachelor’s degree. She worked at a women’s refuge straight out of university before successfully applying for a role at Oranga Tamariki where she still works. She says she’s found the role incredibly fulfilling and one that combines her passions.
“I love kids and I love working with kids, advocating for them and listening to their stories and being an agent of change.”
Her colleagues adore her and Radiya believes her experiences as a refugee have helped her in her career path.
“One thing that I know for myself is that we all have different walks of life. I look at my life and where I came from and it makes me conscious when I’m working with others that they’ve got their stories and their walks of life. It humbles me to work with them."
It’s not only her professional life where Radiya gives back though, she was so inspired by her refugee support volunteer that she ended up becoming one herself. She’s supported an Afar and a Vietnamese family as they’ve navigated their new lives in New Zealand.
“I wanted to give back to the community and tell refugees that I came as a refugee and there’s nothing wrong with coming as a refugee and starting a new life in Hamilton. I wanted to do my bit.”
Radiya says people often don’t believe her when she tells them her background and that there are still a lot of misconceptions about who refugees are.
“I wish people would be curious to know more about refugees. It’s not our choice, it just happened. I’d challenge everyone to go out and speak to refugees or become volunteers. It’ll change their mind and perspectives in a lot of ways. I don’t have any problem with people coming up and speaking to me about my experiences at all.”
Radiya Ali is part of New Zealand Red Cross’ Kiwi Legends series, profiling people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home.