05 Oct New Zealand then and now: Refugee reflects on changed attit…
Thirty years after arriving in New Zealand, Adel Salmanzadeh shares his thoughts on how the country’s treatment of refugees has changed, and how he defied the odds himself. Matthew Rosenberg reports.
Adel Salmanzadeh’s journey to New Zealand began in the back of a smuggler’s truck, travelling at speed towards the Pakistan border.
The ute powered through the night, kicking up a trail of dust as it passed an unpatrolled outpost. Iran was in its rearview mirror, safe, for now.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence the man who arrived in New Zealand without a word of English went on to complete his PhD in race unity.
With his country in the throes of the Iran-Iraq War, then-17-year-old Salmanzadeh was nearing the age of compulsory army enlistment, and the likely prospect of him being put on the frontlines because of his religion was too much for his mother.
With that fateful day approaching, she made the heartbreaking decision to send her two sons to new lands.
A bumpy ride in a truck, three days on camels, one train trip, and registration at Lahore’s United Nations commission for refugees would follow.
Two years later, Salmanzadeh would be accepted under New Zealand’s refugee quota and fly to the other side of the world to start a new life. He arrived in September 1989.
When Salmanzadeh arrived, he was overwhelmed by the hospitality he received.
Strangers would invite him into their home, and there was seemingly endless interest in his story.
Thirty years on, he’s taking some time to look back on his life, and reflect on the changing attitudes of New Zealanders.
Are we as welcoming as we once were? Salmanzadeh isn’t convinced.
“I think we’ve become more materialistic as a country. People want more stuff, more comfort. ‘I don’t just want a simple retirement, I want a really good one. I don’t want good healthcare, I want amazing healthcare’.
“When I came here, people were content and people could share their dinner.”
Following the Christchurch terror attacks, Salmanzadeh says New Zealanders were forced to confront just how little they knew those around them.
The whole country suddenly started talking about the fact they didn’t know their neighbours. Didn’t know the migrant family living next door.
He believes the Government can only do so much to integrate migrants and refugees into communities, saying a better solution is for people to get out there and make newcomers feel welcome themselves.
All people have similar needs, regardless of where they come from, he says.
What were Salmanzadeh’s needs when he arrived? Language was the main barrier, he says.
Although he felt accepted and welcomed, the refugee quota system was just a couple of years old and he soon found himself slipping through the cracks.
Salmanzadeh and his brother could only speak Farsi, their native tongue, so enrolment at Hutt Valley High came as a shock to the system.
He didn’t last long.
“Education was really important but English was very difficult. I remember going to high school and just dropping out after a few months,” he recalls.
“It just wasn’t what I could carry on with. There was no support at the time.”
Thirty years on, Salmanzadeh has achieved his bachelor’s degree, masters, and will soon finish his PhD on race unity.
It would be a major achievement for anyone, but especially for a man who didn’t write his first 500 words in English until he was 21 years old.
Salmanzadeh never gave up on his education.
When he dropped out of high school, he took a job at McDonald’s which he used to teach himself English.
In 1994, he received special admission to Victoria University to begin his English degree.
“I knew I might have to spend 20 hours on an essay instead of 10, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do it.
“How many papers I failed, how many C minuses I got … it was pretty hard work, but I stuck at it.”
Four years later (the degree normally took three), Salmanzadeh emerged triumphant with his bachelors.
It was 1998, the same year he married his wife Maxine (also Bahá’í). His father was present at both events, having travelled from Iran for his first and only trip.
He was so ill from diabetes that doctors in New Zealand said it was a “miracle” he’d been allowed on the plane at all, and he died soon after returning home.
How did Salmanzadeh push through difficult circumstances?
He says he’s “always had a deep belief that he’s going to make it”.
But he’s not exactly sure where that has come from.
“I’ve talked to my kids, they’re very curious about this too, [but] this is the nature of refugees, we need to do so many things to keep afloat. For us, we don’t take a day for granted.”
Salmanzadeh arrived in New Zealand with just a suitcase. Now he and his wife have their own home in Auckland’s Avondale, along with two children.
Aside from working on his PhD, he is also employed by the Ministry of Education as an advisor for refugee and migrant support services.
In his spare time, he creates prints which he sells to fund charity work.
Looking back to when he arrived, he shudders to think of someone in his position – an unaccompanied minor – being allowed to drop out of school because they were struggling with the language.
True integration begins on a grassroots level, he maintains.
On the street Salmanzadeh calls home, there are about 60 houses, almost all of which have received a knock on the door from him and his wife.
“You can have multi-million dollar initiatives, but the easiest thing is to knock on your neighbour’s door and have a cup of tea.
“That guy across the road from another country might have a different language and culture, but very similar needs.”