When Rez Gardi was announced in 2017 as the Young New Zealander of the Year it was only the latest milestone in a remarkable life that began in 1991 in a United Nations refugee camp in Pakistan.
Escaping persecution from her home land of Kurdistan, she and her family faced the daily realities of life in a camp that, for the first six years of her life, offered little in the way of hope or future prospects. So when they were offered the opportunity to resettle in New Zealand, it was a day she says she will never forget.
“I can still vividly recall the day we found out where we would be moving to; though I have to admit I had no idea where New Zealand was. We thought it was a city in Australia! But I was incredibly excited as it was pretty much a lucky dip where you ended up.”
Arriving in New Zealand with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, a trip to the top of One Tree Hill soon revealed to the young six year old how different her new surroundings were compared to the life she had left behind in Pakistan.
“I had never before seen so many trees. I was shocked that everywhere I looked there were trees. I just couldn’t believe we had been sent to a country that seemed to have everything.”
Speaking no English, though fluent in three other languages and naturally timid, her first few months at her new school were to prove challenging; but for reasons you might not expect. Having got used to the fact that children were regularly slapped or dragged by their hair for giving wrong answers in the classes she had attended in Pakistan, Rez became convinced that New Zealand children were obviously very smart because teachers never slapped them!
Quickly becoming fluent in English and moving into an accelerated steam within a year of starting at her new school, it was an early sign of the acceleration the ambitious young student would apply to all aspects of her life.
Completing her NCEA1-3 with excellence endorsements and going on to gain a conjoint Bachelor of Laws with Honours and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Relations and Criminology; the stage was set for a legal career destined to move into high gear after becoming the first female Kurdish lawyer in New Zealand.
“Being a refugee really motivated me to be successful. Given my background, I was driven to make a difference in the world from a young age. While law was an inevitable career path for me, I was also very focused on getting involved in humanitarian work and helping others find a voice.
With a list of achievements over the last 10 years that almost runs to almost two pages in her CV, an involvement in multiple organisations and more than 35 speaking engagements completed over the last 18 months alone, Rez readily admits that spare time is a luxury.
“I was the first in my family to be able to go to university and I’m very conscious that my parents gave up everything to be able to give me this opportunity. Helping marginalised people access justice is part of my DNA as I came to understand from an early age what the denial of justice meant. It’s what drives me to do what I do every day.”
Committed to ensuring that the plight of settling New Zealanders is easier than it was for her own family, Rez is currently working on a range of projects for refugee youth in New Zealand through the charity she established, Empower, as well as being involved as a board member of Open Universities for Refugees and the founder of the Kurdish Youth Association in New Zealand.