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Refugee turned research scientist studies Muslim Kiwis

02 November 2023

A ground-breaking new study exploring perceptions of Muslim Kiwis is being led by a former refugee turned research scientist.


University of Canterbury (UC) postdoctoral fellow, Dr Usman Afzali.

The first of its kind Muslim Diversity Study from Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) postdoctoral fellow, Dr Usman Afzali, seeks to understand what determines resilience, diversity and wellbeing in Muslim New Zealanders.

Originally from Afghanistan, Dr Afzali grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan before returning to Afghanistan in 2002 during a relative period of stability. Back in Afghanistan, he completed his medical training and began work with an international NGO delivering health services before having to leave again this time for Aotearoa New Zealand.

SDG 3 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 - Good health and wellbeing.

Dr Afzali says working in the health field in Afghanistan was a privilege. “I wanted to serve in Afghanistan and did not think of moving overseas, but as fate had it, I ended up in New Zealand following my fiancée.

“When I got here, I was unable to work as a doctor, so I was working odd jobs in a restaurant to support my family both here and in Afghanistan. It began to take a toll on my mental wellbeing, and I wondered if I had made the right decision moving to the other side of the world with what seemed like few choices.”

Following a conversation with his father, Dr Afzali realised he would have to pursue a new career as it was not safe to return to Afghanistan.

He began a new path at UC studying for a Bachelor of Science majoring in psychology and biochemistry. “I had to start from the beginning with 100-level papers, but by the end of my first year I had found a new passion for psychology; I dropped all my biochemistry papers and pursued psychology.”

Overcoming age, financial, and language barriers, Dr Afzali went on to do his PhD in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, in UC’s School of Psychology, Speech and Hearing, but then in 2019 came the March 15 Mosque shootings.

Dr Afzali lost close friends and members of his community in the terror attacks, which killed 51 people in two city mosques. Deeply affected by what happened, he says: “I wanted to do something to help, I thought I should be one of the people who finds solutions for Muslim issues.”

Following the attacks, he was asked to collaborate on The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS), a large national longitudinal study of social attitudes, personality, ideology and health outcomes of New Zealanders and their changes of attitudes and values over time.

“I collaborated on research on the national identity and attitude towards Muslims; however, we could not determine how Muslims perceived themselves and what their attitudes were, since their sample size from the NZAVS study was too small with only less than 100 participants,” he says.

“I wanted to gather more data from the Muslim community to get good representation, and to do so would mean reaching into those communities to build dialogue and trust.”

The Muslim Diversity Study aims to understand how Muslim New Zealanders perceive themselves in Aotearoa New Zealand and what makes them resilient.

“Our research began in February 2023, and even though 40,000 of New Zealand’s 62,000 Muslims live in Auckland, we wanted to get samples from across the whole country to get as big a representation as possible.”

Having received funding from Templeton Religion Trust, and building on the NZAVS study, the team are using the NZAVS questionnaire to collect data from 3000 Muslims across New Zealand.

“We questioned if we should change questions to tailor to a Muslim community but the consensus within the reference group was to leave them as they are: If we are saying that we are New Zealanders then we shouldn’t treat ourselves differently,” Dr Afzali says.

Beginning with community consultation to ensure the feasibility of the study, and to find out who would participate – young, old, male, and female – the researchers found that there was a strong signal in the community that the research was important, including from various Muslim community organisation leaders and elders from different backgrounds, age groups, genders, and ethnicities.

Dr Afzali and the team of researchers hope to finalise their research in 2026 and share their findings with local and national government bodies in the hope of showing the diversity and challenges within the group. “The study includes where we come from, what we contribute to New Zealand, what we think and what our needs are.”

Find out more on the Muslim Diversity Study here>

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