Volunteers help drive support for mosque victims

From Voices, 7:00 am on 1 July 2019

Zhiyan Basharati can’t think of anything else she would rather be doing than heading up the Christchurch Victims Organisation Committee this year. 

“Right now, we are helping people to settle in to their homes, but we do a lot of other things too.”

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Zhiyan, who has a university doctorate in forensic psychology, tells me she’s always been fascinated about how people think and why people do the things they do. She is bright, bubbly and business like. Her office is full of post it notes of different colours.

So it's no surprise that her daily to do task list sounds exhausting. It involves the distribution of donated goods, handling any funding for victims, and helping people who want to apply for residency.

"But I can be doing different things on any given day." She agrees that there seems to be no end to the mahi (work).

"Health is a biggie too. I am a big advocate for health," she says. "I just want families to relax a bit more and actually have the time to grieve."

Zhiyan says getting out and spending time with them is also key. 

“We need to listen to them and consult with them personally on their health, assistance and wellbeing,” she says. “Not just be sitting in our comfortable offices and making decisions for them.”  

The family of victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks including Farid Ahmed, who is in a wheelchair.

Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"I have worked in the community and been an advocate for past eight years." 

She has been with the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre, the chairperson for the Canterbury District Health Board Consumer Council and is the vice chair of the multicultural strategy for the Christchurch City Council.  

Zhiyan’s efforts to quickly set up this committee to help so many affected families and victims has been welcomed by many. But she has been kept busy since the mosque attacks on 15 March, when 51 people were killed. 

Her job description to help her community is as wide and varied as each day is different.  

Volunteers accept and distribute donated foodstuffs, household goods, and they also offer a translation service.  

This is extremely important given the cultural diversity of the victims and their families. 

Ellen, who is originally from the Netherlands, is busy volunteering on the day I visit. She tells me she comes in once a week to lend a hand. 

"There’s a lot of carrying stuff around, accepting goods from the public, writing down what they give and sorting boxes out for victims of families." 

Ellen and Zhiyan

Ellen and Zhiyan Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

The volunteers also drive families around, and help people access any services they need.   

Zhiyan and her family have first-hand life experiences of resettling into a new country as former refugees. 

She arrived in New Zealand in 2001 when she was just 11 years old after being born and raised in a refugee camp in Iraq. Zhiyan is the number three of six children. Her Kurdish parents fled Iran in the early 1980s during the Iran/ Iraq war.  

"Kurdish people weren’t allowed to speak or talk or learn about their history," she says. "As a child, I knew there was something wrong with the place because it just didn’t make sense to me as everything was controlled by the Iraq government." 

Life was tough back then.  

"I have to say because of my experience in refugee camps, I was very scared of cop cars because in the refugee camps there would be military coming in to raid camps and my dad would be taken captive every year."

Zhiyan’s father now runs a well-known, successful Halal butchery in Christchurch, but she says that refugee experience in her childhood years had a huge impact.  

Phillipstown community hub

Phillipstown community hub Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

“My memories have shaped who I am now,” she says. “An advocate for my community. There’s so much injustice.”  

Zhiyan knows it takes a while for people to resettle here too.  

"You’d think when people first come to the country it is quite safe and developed but it takes some time for people resettle and feel that sense of belonging." 

She believes people here could try harder to meet immigrants and interact with diverse communities.  

"We need to be more open about diverse communities and cultures within the system," she says.  

Zhiyan says there is still so much work to do. I ask what donations are best now, if people are still wanting to donate goods.

"Household goods are really great as well as winter clothes and blankets, flannelette sheets, that sort of thing," she tells me.

The Christchurch Victims Organising Committee was never just a one to two week thing.

"There is a long-term plan and vision to help these people," she says. "At least until the end of the year."