An Interview With: Golriz Ghahraman
Adding to her incredible repertoire of lawyer, UN consultant and human rights advocate, Golriz has set her sights on being the first refugee to enter parliament as an MP. She spent some time with us to talk about facing adversity and shaping how we see the world.
What do you do?
At the moment I do a lot of talking! I speak a lot at schools, universities, to reporters, and to community groups about the upcoming elections, but mostly about human rights and democracy issues. What I do for my day job has also always been eclectic. As a lawyer I practice criminal law, human rights, and a bit of constitutional law - challenging government decisions and policy. On the side I am a consultant for the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, and just drafted a code of conduct for prosecutors in Nigeria. On a purely human rights front, I work for a couple of different NGOs on child rights and justice issues.
You fled Mashhad at just nine years old, can you tell us a bit about that?
We left Mashhad with only a couple of relatively small bags, we couldn't sell our house or pack our things, or even say goodbye to anyone - for fear the authorities would find out we were escaping. I remember going to see my mum's family across the country and staying with them a week or two, feeling the tension as they probably knew what was happening but no one would dare talk about it. Then everyone wept at the airport. We never went back of course, because we can't - the fear of persecution remains.
I think this is the thing people don't realise about refugees. We are not immigrants, we are not choosing to leave. No one wants to abandon their life in every way, never to return, to see their family. We are people who have to leave to escape persecution. That's why international law provides for the right to seek asylum.
Was there a specific part of your journey that compelled you to do what you do now?
Watching my parents risk absolutely everything, leave behind family, their culture and language, their professions just to escape religious and political persecution was defining act for me. It’s meant I value human rights very highly and feel an urgent need to protect them. I know that fighting for rights, not just my own, and working to strengthen the institutions that protect our democracy has to be continuing - because I've seen the world without them.
Is there anything you remember seeing or experiencing that really stuck with you?
The thing I remember most is the incredible sense of fear about being returned to Iran once we got to Auckland airport. Refugees are people who have no choice but to flee their homeland. It isn't a choice, and being returned to a situation of persecution is untenable. But equally, I remember the absolute warmth with which we were welcomed here and the beautiful, very green city of Auckland once we left the airport.
As a human rights lawyer I can only imagine the stories you have heard, how do you deal with hearing about other people’s trauma?
I feel a sense of real relief in being involved and effective in solving human rights and justice issues. I know the trauma is there, so not being involved would be more distressing to me.
I have been really inspired by the amazing storytelling through women like Malala Yousafzai and Nujeen Mustafa, do you think it is important to share our stories?
I have realised that it really is important for women and minorities (whether that's refugees, disabled persons, members of the rainbow community) to tell our stories, but more than that to take part in shaping the world around us. This is especially true in the current global climate of politics, I've realised that our rights and our interests won't necessarily be protected by majority rules democracy unless we are at the decision making table. Apart from bringing human rights law to parliament, the need for diversity was a big reason I decided to run.
How do you feel your experience has impacted the way you react to things?
I try to remember that you can't really ever judge anyone until I've walked a mile in their shoes. Empathy is a huge part of what makes our society fair. We can't judge people in their hour of need, whether they're newly arrived migrants or refugees, happen to be unemployed right now or have mental health needs. Circumstances could conspire to put any of us in that position, so we need to look out for each other.
What would your advice be to people that are battling adversity in some shape or form?
That's a hard one because I really think adversity is something a community, or society, should come together to solve. I wouldn't want to give advice to anyone unless I've walked a mile in their shoes, so to speak. But what I would say, is that we all have inherent dignity, deserve respect and basic human rights - including the right not to hungry or cold, because what does the right to vote or free speech mean to those we don't afford housing or basic income? - We have these rights not because we are good or have achieved some other level of success, but because we are human.
You're now running for parliament in the hopes of being the first refugee to become an MP, why is this important to you?
I've realised that my image and story will mean different things to different people. I've had to set aside my distaste for tokenism in the past few years in face of the greatest humanitarian crisis we've seen since WWII, which is emanating from my part of the world. Giving the refugee crisis a name and face has become a responsibility for those of us who have made it out. At the same time the rise of populism and the politics of division in places like the US and UK have made it urgent for minorities and women to take a seat at the decision making table. Whether that's as a refugee, migrant, member of the Rainbow or disabled community - we can't rely on majority rule democracy to protect our rights or interests. We need to participate and empower each other to participate.