Christchurch advocate for refugee families an award finalist

12 March 2021

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, this UC graduate has a PhD in forensic psychology, is a dedicated advocate for refugees and migrants, and award finalist.

  • Dr Zhiyan Basharati

    Dr Zhiyan Basharati is a finalist for the University of Canterbury Young New Zealander of the Year, in recognition of her work in amplifying refugee voices and perspectives.

On March 15, 2019, Zhiyan Basharati was visiting her brother at Christchurch Hospital when ambulances and upset bystanders began bringing in patients with gunshot wounds.

When she heard local mosques had been attacked, she quickly introduced herself to hospital staff as a local community worker and began organising translators who spoke Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Somali or Kurdish to help victims and their family members.

“It was pretty emotional. I started to call family and friends to see if they were ok. People were in shock, but because of what I’ve experienced in my life I was functioning and I knew what to do. I was aware of all the community groups and services and how to connect people with them.”

She didn’t get home until 5am the next morning. That immediate help developed into an ongoing role co-ordinating the welfare centre set up at Hagley College and then setting up and becoming the Operations Manager for the Christchurch Victims Organising Committee (CVOC) to provide information and help to survivors and their families.

In recognition of these efforts and her other community work and advocacy for refugees and migrants, Dr Basharati has been named as one of three finalists in the University of Canterbury (UC) Young New Zealander of the Year - Te Mātātahi o te Tau - for 2021.

Dr Basharati was born in a Kurdish refugee camp and came to New Zealand with her family in 2001 when she was 11. She learnt English when she started school in Christchurch and in 2012 she graduated from UC with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours. She went on to graduate with a PhD in Forensic Psychology in 2017.

She says her nomination as a finalist, which has come as a total surprise, is recognition of the importance of grass roots work.

“I’m not used to being recognised, it makes me feel very uncomfortable. But I do want people to know that refugees and migrants are giving back to their community and they do good work. I’m not the only person who does this kind of stuff. It’s nice to see these awards highlighting grass roots, selfless work.”

She says her background in psychology, her early childhood experiences, and her time working in the community, all equipped her to help people after the shootings.

“My background and what my family went through helped me understand that you can’t judge people before you know what they’ve been through. You need to be able to accept people and work with them.

“Almost every year the army would raid the camp we lived in and my dad would be captured for ransom. So when the mosque attacks happened I understood how to get through the pain to make sure I could still contribute.

“From my childhood, I know fear and I recognise fear. I feel that everything I’ve been through in New Zealand, and my nine years of community work, has been for this purpose.”

Dr Basharati has worked hard to give back to the community that’s offered her a new life and an education away from the violence and uncertainty she experienced as a child.

While she was studying at UC she volunteered for the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre and also tutored at the university part-time. In 2013 she founded the New Zealand National Youth Refugee Council to help represent refugee voices and perspectives.

She was also Chair of the Canterbury District Health Board Consumer Council and Vice-Chair of Christchurch City Council’s Multicultural Strategy Working Party.

Her role at CVOC is now based at the Christchurch Community Centre, and she says family members of those killed on March 15, 2019, and the survivors, are still struggling with mental health issues and trying to navigate health, employment, immigration and welfare systems.

She also works 15 hours a week for the Depression Support Network and for non-profit organisation Te Puna Oranga and researches refugee entrepreneurs for UC.

“I want to give back to New Zealand for the opportunities we’ve received here,” she says. “My activism has grown from there. I also like giving to people and helping people.

“I would like to start a conversation about integration of the multi-cultural community because there’s still a lot more to do. I hope these awards bring light to the issues that we’re facing.”

The finalists for the University of Canterbury Young New Zealander of the Year – Te Mātātahi o te Tau are:

Brianna Fruean (Auckland Tāmaki Makaurau)
Jazz Thornton (Auckland Tāmaki Makaurau)
Dr Zhiyan Basharati (Christchurch Ōtautahi)

The Kiwibank 2021 New Zealander of the Year Awards Gala Dinner will be held on 31 March at Cordis Hotel, Auckland. Tables are on sale here.

For further information please contact:

UC Communications team, media@canterbury.ac.nz, Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168