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Celebrating 2021 Young New Zealander of the Year Finalists

04 March 2021

The Young New Zealander of the Year Award finalists for 2021 are Brianna Fruean, Jazz Thornton and Dr. Zhiyan Basharati. This award celebrates young people who are working hard to make a positive impact within our community.


The University of Canterbury Young New Zealander of the Year Award – Te Mātātahi o te Tau recognises a young person brimming with the potential to build a bright future for Aotearoa, striving across the last year to improve or support their whole community and Tai Ao.

Meet our 3 finalists.

Brianna Fruean

Brianna Fruean has been campaigning for climate justice for most of her life. As a young girl in Samoa, where much of the population lives in low-lying coastal areas, hearing the implications climate change would have for her island jumpstarted Brianna’s activism and she hasn’t looked back since. At 11, she became a founding member of the Samoan chapter of the global climate organisation At 14, she attended the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development as a youth ambassador and at 16 she won the prestigious Commonwealth Youth Award for her environmental activism. Brianna was the first youth ambassador for the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme and in 2017 she gave a keynote address at COP23 (the United Nations Climate Change conference) in Germany. In 2019, after helping organise Auckland’s School Strike 4 Climate, she attended COP25 in Spain where she spoke alongside former United States Secretary of State, John Kerry. When she attends environmental summits, Brianna speaks about youth perspectives and concerns about the impacts of climate change. Brianna, now 22, studies Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland and sits on the Council of Elders for the Pacific Climate Warriors.

Ja Thornton

After abuse, depression, hospital stays and multiple suicide attempts characterised her teenage years, Ja Thornton has truly turned her life around to become a mental health activist who has written two books and produced multiple films. Shortly after her final suicide attempt, when Ja says she decided to ‘stop surviving and start fighting’, she enrolled in South Seas Film and Television School to learn how to tell the stories of people like her. After only a few months she produced short film Dear Suicidal Me, which features real people reading their suicide notes followed by the reasons they feel lucky to be alive. The film had more than 80 million views in the first 48 hours after it was posted online. In 2014, Ja and Genevieve Mora created Voices of Hope, a suicide prevention organisation that creates media content such as videos, podcasts, and blogs to provide support for those struggling with mental illness. Ja has also released Jessica’s Tree, a web series that follows the final 24 hours of the life of her friend Jessica, who died of suicide in 2015. In 2020, New Zealand director Leanne Pooley released The Girl on the Bridge, a documentary about the production of Jessica’s Tree. Most recently, Ja received the Commonwealth Points of Light award from Her Majesty the Queen for her work in mental health advocacy. She also volunteers at adolescent psychiatric wards and gives talks in schools on the importance of mental health.

Dr Zhiyan Basharati

After spending her childhood in a Kurdish refugee camp, Dr Zhiyan Basharati arrived in New Zealand with her family at age 11, not speaking a word of English. Now, she has a PhD in forensic psychology and is a dedicated advocate for refugees and migrants. While studying she volunteered for the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre and in 2013 she founded the New Zealand National Youth Refugee Council to help amplify refugee voices and perspectives. She has also been chair of the Canterbury District Health Board Consumer Council and vice-chair of the Christchurch City Council’s Multicultural Strategy Working Party. On the day of the Christchurch mosque attacks, Zhiyan was at Christchurch Hospital when she saw ambulances rushing in. She quickly made herself known to staff and began organising translators who spoke Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Somali or Kurdish to assist victims and their family members. She went on to coordinate the welfare centre at Hagley College and set up the Christchurch Victims Organising Committee (CVOC), working around the clock to disseminate information and help survivors and their families in various capacities, including distributing donations and helping with immigration status and visa issues.

Meet the rest of the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards finalists here:

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