30 Oct 2015

Iraqi-born woman yet to hear from Defence

7:58 pm on 30 October 2015

An Iraqi-born woman who was told she couldn't enlist because of her birthplace says she is still waiting to hear from the Defence Force.

Warda Jawad is a masters student of psychology at Massey University, and works as a counsellor.

Warda Jawad is a masters student of psychology at Massey University, and works as a counsellor. Photo: RNZ / Mohamed Hassan

Warda Jawad was told she couldn't pass a security check as an army psychologist because she was born in Iraq, and had spent several months in Oman studying medicine.

But after pressing officials for answers in August, the defence force said her application would be reopened, and they would be in touch as soon as possible.

Ms Jawad said she was still waiting to hear from the defence force.

She wanted an explanation as to why she was dismissed so easily, given she has lived in New Zealand for almost two decades and grew up as a New Zealander.

"I'm sort of just wanting a further explanation of why that was said about me.

"I understand this behaved according to section 25 of the Human Rights Act, but I'm sort of wanting a bit more than that, taking into consideration I've been here for 18 years.

"I was raised here - I'm a Kiwi."

Ms Jawad said she had been contacted by several psychology students who shared fears they too would be turned down for roles because of their backgrounds.

Born in Basrah, Iraq, her family escaped the growing violence of the Gulf War in 1993. She was three years old at the time.

"When people try and describe the house that we lived in, the places we went to, even our neighbours... I have no memories of it," she said.

"I don't even have that many photos because it was during the war... so I've got nothing to remember it by.

"Basically all my childhood memories start from when I came to New Zealand."

The 25-year-old is now a masters student of psychology at Massey University, and works as a counsellor. She said she was driven by a desire to help people.

After hearing recruiters from the New Zealand Army talk about a career as a psychologist in the Defence Force, she decided it was the job for her.

"It really sparked my interest, so I went on their website and had a look at the criteria, and it was a master's degree, so I thought great!

The application process was lengthy, and for the next two months she underwent rigourous training with a personal fitness coach so she could meet the NZDF's fitness code.

She also paid for laser eye surgery because the Defence Force's medical requirements said she could not wear glasses or contacts.

At one point, the recruiter asked if she had been outside of New Zealand in the last 10 years, and she told them she spent 19 months studying medicine in Oman but returned when she felt homesick. She was told that might affect her application.

After two more months of anxious waiting, the phone finally rang.

But the recruiter told her it was not good news. "She said, 'Hey look, the news isn't good, basically your application has been rejected, given your place of birth and being away for extended periods of time from New Zealand, you weren't able to pass a security clearance'."

Ms Jawad was devastated. "I hung up and I was really upset, and I burst into tears inside the car, and I called my mum," she said.

She complained to the Human Rights Commission, which tried to set up a mediation meeting.

The NZDF refused to attend. It cited Section 25 of the Human Rights Act, which said a person can be denied employment based on their place of origin where national security is an issue.

The NZDF refused to talk to RNZ, but sent the following statement.

"For the protection of New Zealand's national security, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) must apply specific security standards in its consideration of all applications for employment, and the ability to achieve and maintain a security clearance is a mandatory requirement for all commissioned officers.

"All NZDF psychologists are commissioned officers, and although Warda Jawad was initially considered to be outside the NZDF eligibility criteria for the security clearance required to enter as a psychologist, this decision was subsequently reviewed."

The NZDF said contact would be made with Ms Jawad as soon as possible.

But Ms Jawad said, even if she was offered the job now, she would not take it.

"I think after all I've been through, I can only imagine how I would be treated by people who don't appreciate people from different cultures," she said.

"I just don't think I'd want to work for an organisation like that."