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The Bakhtiari family lives in a quiet Hamilton suburb, a long way from the life that led them here.
Habiba and her two daughters, Sara and Maryam, were forced to flee their home in Afghanistan when the girls were young.
They spent nine years living in Iran before moving back to Afghanistan when the Taliban was toppled.
“In name it is safe but if you live there you see it isn’t really safe, especially for women,” says Sara of their lives in Afghanistan.
“My Mum was worried about us because we didn’t have a man in our house and in Afghanistan if you don’t have a man in your house it’s very difficult to live there. [It] was really difficult because the things we really wanted in life were impossible to reach.”
The family uprooted themselves once again, this time to Pakistan where they registered as refugees with UNHCR.
They were eventually asked to meet with officials from New Zealand for possible resettlement, the first of what would be many interviews.
“We’d never heard of New Zealand and thought it was Switzerland,” says Sara and the three of them laugh at the memory.
“The second time we went for an interview, they gave us some paper and on the paper was the name of New Zealand so we went home and searched it.”
Maryam recalls looking at it on the map and being shocked by how far away it was. Meanwhile, Sara googled the country’s crime rate and was happy to find that it was incredibly low.
“That’s the only thing we wanted, to live in a country with not much crime,” Sara says.
The family was accepted for resettlement and packed their bags to start their lives over for the final time.
Sara and Maryam are both in their early 20s and have big ambitions and they’ve both been working towards achieving their goals since arriving in Hamilton in 2015. They both secured jobs through the Red Cross Pathways to Employment programme and are in higher education.
Sara works at Columbus Coffee while also studying culinary art. She talks openly of her desire to open a restaurant selling Afghan food to the people of Hamilton.
“The only thing I’m thinking about is my goal,” she says. “I think we have lots of delicious cuisines. When friends come to our house we won’t let them go without eating. They always say it’s delicious.
“I’ve got a notebook and when I think of something I want to do I just write a sentence. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, I just write down what I will do to achieve this goal.”
Meanwhile, Maryam is studying human development because she wants to help people in the community.
She also works three jobs: one at Nandos, one as a support worker for an Afghan mothers group run by Red Cross and Plunket, and another as an interpreter.
Habiba brings out a framed certificate showing that Maryam made this year’s Hamilton City Council 30 under 30 list, celebrating the success of young people in the city. She’s clearly proud of her daughter, much to Maryam’s embarrassment.
She’s less open about what she wants to achieve in life than her younger sister.
“I don’t usually say a lot about my goals because I think the more I say it the less likely I am to do it.”
Although Maryam does eventually admit that her ultimate dream is to become a professional race car driver, a somewhat surprising admission.
Altruism runs in the Bakhtiari family and all three women have been working hard to give back to their community.
Habiba works with an elderly Afghan woman who has a disabled son and needs extra support. This includes helping with the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and any other tasks that the family finds difficult to complete.
This support is vital not only to deal with practicalities but also because it means the woman has an opportunity to interact with someone in her own language, something that rarely happens outside the hours Habiba spends with her.
Her two daughters are Red Cross refugee support volunteers, helping other families on their resettlement journey. Their own experiences with resettlement mean they know the difficulties and are well-equipped to support others.
"I have been able to help open doors to new refugees in Hamilton," says Maryam.
The whole family believes that giving back to the community is a natural progression of their resettlement journey.
“Before we came to New Zealand I really didn’t live the way that I wanted,” says Sara. “But now each minute of my life is really important to me. I don’t want to waste it on things that don’t matter to me.
I just want to tell everybody how New Zealand helped us and I want to pay it back by being a good and active citizen.”
How to help
You can become a refugee support volunteer and be the friendly faces that welcome our newest Kiwis. Apply to join our team here.
Or, if you’re an employer with an available position and would like to know more about our Pathways to Employment programme, get in touch with your local team here.