Welcoming WISE women

From Voices, 7:00 am on 12 August 2019

Riding a bicycle felt like flying for Fatima Alalosi when she had her first lesson with a group of other migrant and refugee women.

"I haven’t ever driven a car or a bike," she says.  "But when I started to learn,  it was wow."

Fatima now works as a volunteer for WISE women project. It stands for Women Inspired Strong Empowered and Enterprising and is run as part of the work for the charitable trust Belong Aotearoa that was formerly ARMS (Auckland Regional Migrant Services) in collaboration with others.

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Zartaj Asrar and Fatima Alalosi.

Zartaj Asrar and Fatima Alalosi. Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

WISE provides a lifeline to many migrant and refugee women in Auckland as they get together to learn, share and do tasks many of us take for granted, like learning how to ride a bike.

Most of these women have only ever walked or taken public transport to get around the city.

Project coordinator Sasi Niyamathullah knows many activities are often things the women have never done before and so what they learn here can be life-changing.

"Even one [woman] who learned she got a free bicycle, now bikes to work using it," says Sasi.

The Sri Lanka born came to New Zealand in 2013 and experienced first-hand how hard it can be to settle in to life in Auckland. 

Sasi loves helping others at WISE. She’s been here for 5 years already.

“It's my daily life and how I feel with my family is how I feel at work," she says with a smile.

Other activities offered through WISE include cooking, sewing, and learning how to swim.

There are also workshops to teach women about their rights and how to do things like taking part to vote in a local body election.

There is also a catering arm to the project where women can cook and run ethnic food stalls at markets.

Over 1,000 women have participated over the years but Sasi says regularly there are about 200 attending hubs in different parts of the city.

"WISE really helps women with refugee and migrant background," said Sasi."And if you know of anyone who fits this bill sitting at home - please tell them to come along."

 Sasi says WISE provides essential support.

"First, I started as a volunteer and then as a worker. Now I am a project coordinator and I thought I should give back to this project by supporting all these women."

She says she only knows at the end of the year if the project will continue the following year, a precarious situation to be in despite so many women wanting to ensure the project continues forever.

Sasi is extremely grateful that some community centers where the hubs are run offer their facilities for free, because money is so tight.

She says WISE is a key programme for people who are new to Aoteraroa New Zealand.

Belong Aotearoa WISE project coordinator, Sasi Niyamathullah

Belong Aotearoa WISE project coordinator, Sasi Niyamathullah Photo: RNZ /Sara Vui-Talitu

She says so many of them suffer from loneliness, isolation and depression when they arrive. Fatima, who came here as a refugee from Iraq, agrees that she felt like that.

"I came here in 2011 and worked 5-6 years at an institute but got depressed so sat at home for 2 years," she said.

"I didn’t see or talk with anyone then after that I met my social worker who advised I come here and see people and mix with society.”

Since then, she has found there were many people just like her. Fatima hasn’t looked back since and the group has given her a lifeline to fit in better to living here.

"So, I started to volunteer and this year I am an official worker here," said Fatima proudly.

Zartaj Asrar moved here from India and after 5 years has just got Permanent Residency. She accidentally came across WISE when doing some exercise outside.

"Just a month or so for me I came walking at the park and then I saw one day there was this cycling event going on. Made me excited cos I have none of my family here as there's just my husband here."

She says her husband didn't want her to learn riding a bike because it could be dangerous.

“But I loved the atmosphere with the women and having fun and plus Fatima was there."

Zumba class, Mt Roskill WISE hub

Zumba class, Mt Roskill WISE hub Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

Zartaj qualified to be a lawyer back in India but she felt the cultural pressure to get married quickly. Following her arranged marriage to a chef, who now works in Auckland, Zartaj says she loves it here.

But the only thing is that has been a real struggle for he has been finding employment.

The joy and laughter at this hub makes it clear that connecting with WISE has transformed these women's lives and Fatima and Zartaj say they both hope the project will always be on offer, to help others just like them.

"We are here not to fight you or to take your job. So please no need to tell us on the street to go back home just because we just put on the Hijab or are Muslims," says Fatima. "We love also this country and we love life and the beauty. We are like you."

"And I'm a fun-loving person who has come to New Zealand to enjoy their life over here - that’s really just it," says Zartaj.