Biography as a Battleground: What It Means To Be New Zealand's First Refugee MP
Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman on trolls, childhood and the political platform she never asked for.
08 October 2018, 3:54am
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Golriz Ghahraman remembers the moment when, as a nine-year-old, she said goodbye to life in Iran, packing perceptions into her memory like belongings into a suitcase. She sat on her bed, made up with sheets bedecked in a bright floral print. The big dark wooden desk where she did her homework sat opposite. Her shelves, painted the year before to her preference, were pink and white. There were books everywhere. The wallpaper was white, printed with big red apples. Ghahraman remembers that little girl—“she was a bit weird”—saying farewell with the equanimity only a child could muster. “I’ve got these memories,” she reasoned, “and then I’ll have these other new memories of this new other place.”
That other place, of course, was Aotearoa—a world away from Mashhad, Iran’s second-most populous city, where Ghahraman was born in 1981. An important Shia holy site and her father’s hometown, it sits on the country’s eastern border. Her mother—the daughter of winemakers—hails from Urmia, on the country’s opposite edge, near the border with Iraq.
We met in the Karangahape Road bar where you’ll often find Ghahraman on a weekend night, relaxing after a week in Parliament, chatting pre-theatre with friends over champagne. We ordered a bottle of champagne, and then a second, as she recounted her childhood above the barroom chatter of a Friday evening.
Her parents —“basically socialists” she says, a term she now identifies with—were both active participants in the Iranian revolution, which started life as a grand uprising. Her paternal grandmother used to check the morgues at day’s end if the family was late in returning home. Not that, in the chaos of revolution, the bodies assuaged her fears: disfigured by the violence of their deaths, they were unrecognisable. “It was a horrific time,” Ghahraman says.
The revolution lurched violently, and in 1979—instead of the democratic republic many hoped for—the just-returned-from-exile Ayatollah Khomeini ascended to power, establishing an Islamic state. Ghahraman’s first memories are of life under a theocratic regime getting established as it found itself embroiled in a brutal war with its Western neighbour, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Mashhad is about as far from Iraq as you can get in Iran and was spared direct attack, but the war was still present: in screaming bomb-raid sirens, in public infrastructure renamed after the newly dead, in the war-time culture of sacrifice for one’s country, in the conscription of child soldiers sent with a key to heaven to clear the landmines on the country’s border with Iraq. “Vans would stop and just take kids off the street… like someone’s older brother has been taken suddenly. Everyone was freaked out all the time. Like, what can we do to hide our kid?”
On the other side of the country, in Urmia, the war was a more direct presence. The family spent time there every year visiting the maternal side of the family. Maryam Ghafoori, Golriz’s mum, remembers it, on those visits, as a “ghost city”, windows blown out by bombs, its streets unpeopled. Ghahraman found it difficult to take the bomb sirens seriously, conditioned, as she was, to the drills of Mashhad. But it was the changes apparent among her contemporaries that struck her most forcefully. “Coming back every year, the kids were really changed by war… some of the kids I knew stopped talking from the shellshock, and that definitely was a real experience of war that was confronting.”
Against that backdrop, the regime found its feet. At some point in her childhood “something changed” for Ghahraman and her family, and for Iran at large. “I was born and the Islamic regime hadn’t really taken hold yet and by the time I have any living memories, it was a theocracy. The adults in my life had never lived under a theocracy before, so they were in full panic mode, like they didn’t know what the hell was going on.” Her parents, she says, talked incessantly about life before the revolution, about how they used to wear miniskirts and bikinis and listen to Western music. “And that’s what my childhood was like, like those conversations were just constant.”
Maryam Ghafoori, speaking in her lounge of her Epsom home under a large painting of Buddha hanging on the wall, tea and pastries served without asking, spoke of how the regime divided the country. “If you were with them, you could kill somebody and get away with it. If you were not with them you had nothing. If you talked, you could be jailed and lashed, and even get killed. So many people got killed. So many girls, boys, 13, 14 years old, just selling opposition newspapers got killed… It wasn’t only the war. Everything else was a mess.” In this political climate, even her closest relationships needed constant re-evaluation, she told me. “You didn’t know if that friend is now that side or this side.”
“It became frightening,” Ghahraman says. Her parents—heavily politicised during, and then betrayed by, the revolution—wanted out. “It was a big decision,” Ghafoori says. “It was scary. Now I get more scared actually… When you’re younger you’re a bit braver. The most difficult part is what is going to happen, and how can you actually leave everything behind?”
The family had a distant relative who had claimed asylum in New Zealand, and they decided to follow. They toured Iran, saying guarded goodbyes to far-flung family. They flew first to Malaysia, from there buying onward tickets to Tonga or Fiji (the family still debates which Pacific island it was), with a stop-off in New Zealand. On arrival, the family approached the first uniformed person they could find, and declared themselves refugees.
Tune into a certain frequency of social media, and the above—taken from the words of those who lived through it—is viewed as suspect at best, at worst as fabrication. There’s a perception out there of Ghahraman as a pathological liar, an overinflated balloon of mistruth forever on the verge of exploding—that she has founded her political career on a cynical reassembly of her own biography. That, indeed, she uses her refugee status as political currency, turning victimhood into political power.
‘Not a real refugee’ is a persistent refrain, most notably from Simon Jeans, an Australian immigration lawyer whose opinion piece on the matter was taken down after threats of legal action from Ghahraman. For Ghahraman, she says she has nothing to hide and is wary of discussing the particulars, noting the burden of proof doesn’t fall on her—that the matter was, in fact, decided 28 years ago. “You either have been given refugee status or you haven’t. Saying you’re a refugee, that’s what it depends on—and we have refugee status.”
(Immigration New Zealand states: “Refugees are people who cannot return to their home country because they have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their religion, race, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”)
A touch of anger entered Ghafoori’s voice when I mentioned the doubt that existed, in some quarters of the Internet, over the family’s status—or, at least, their truthful claim to it. “Ok, let’s say Golriz lied. Let’s say that, huh. She didn’t. What she’s said is the truth, but would this make any difference for her to go into [politics]? No, she’s a well-educated girl, she’s a New Zealander, and she wanted to be a politician… What is so important about these things?”
That reasoning hasn’t stopped the trolls, who respond to Ghahraman’s public presence with opprobrium. Even within the Green Party, two of Ghahraman’s colleagues—American-accented Julie Anne Genter and UK-born Mojo Mathers—are immigrants to Aotearoa. Both came to New Zealand later in their respective lives, but neither deal with vitriol of the persistence and viciousness that is a fact of Ghahraman’s political life—dehumanising, threatening, plainly racist: “Wait until they are punching you in the head and have a knife to your throat”; “You are the offspring of country shoppers”; “Go back to where you come from and fix the problem there”; “Terrorist supporting tart”; “Who breeds people like her?”
It started as soon as she announced her candidacy, but she still doesn’t understand it. “A small political party, I’m last on the list, I’m a first-time MP, I’m outside government. It’s so weird. I’d maybe understand it if I were wielding some power over their lives in some way.” Why then, I asked, do people object so vehemently to her presence in public life? She shook her head and sipped from her champagne flute. “It does trigger something in people to see an immigrant just present their achievements and be like, ‘Yeah, I have a right to be in Parliament.’”
Ghafoori, a trained psychologist, remembers what it was like to be refugee in a strange country. It was 1990. She was happy, the big decisions made, but understandably apprehensive: in her mid-30s, with half a life behind her, the reality of starting again dawned on her. “A week ago,” she says, remembering that feeling, “I was a well-educated woman; the week after, in New Zealand, I was nobody. I lost my identity.”
Nine-year-old Ghahraman was more sanguine about her new life, struck by Auckland’s sense of space—every property with its own front lawn, the parks, a reserve at the end of every other street—after tightly packed Mashhad. Accustomed to apartment living, the pitched-roofed houses looked to her like those she had only previously seen in cartoons.
School, when it began, was met with the same equanimity with which she faced leaving Iran. “This will be familiar soon. Soon this will just be school. Look at that tree. That tree will just be that tree.” A Chaucer School classmate I spoke to remembered her as a quiet, well-behaved kid. “She was always quite relaxed about everything. Looking back on it now, from an adult perspective, everything they’d done in terms of upending everything and moving to a whole new country, that must’ve been hugely traumatic.”
As her parents struggled with the language, the accent, the careers they’d left behind, Ghahraman flourished. “Because that’s part of being an immigrant as well, a child immigrant, is that you realise that actually you are on the same footing as your parents. Eventually you surpass them, quite quickly, like within a year.” She soon shed her sense of foreignness and settled into the business of being a New Zealander, bouncing through suburbs and schools, and into university to study law.
A formative spell as an intern at Amnesty International changed her life. “Before then, I didn’t do much. I was cool and I partied and whatever. But then I was like, 'fuck, I actually want to do shit' so I sat down and wrote out a ten-year plan—I wrote it out, like literally every year and it was like books to read, and this is how much I am going to save, and like this is the work I’m going to do because I need this experience.”
One day, after law school, she was working in her mum’s gift shop, filling in paperwork. A lawyer overheard her saying she didn’t know any lawyers who could move her admission to the bar. That chance encounter led to a job as a junior to Lester Cordwell, an Auckland criminal defender: “It was all murder and rape and methamphetamine trials, but you get this incredible human story,” she remembers of the job. Cordwell told me via email that Ghahraman “was always interested in ensuring people’s rights were protected and was always very passionate about her work”.
She followed that passion for the human story behind the crimes to an unpaid internship at the United Nations, during which she worked on the defence team for an accused Rwandan war criminal who died before he could be convicted. Later, in a paid position, she helped defend Simon Bikindi, the Hutu songwriter who used his music to incite genocide against the Tutsi minority. She also worked on the defence of a Yugoslavian leader accused of war crimes. She completed her Masters in International Human Rights Law at Oxford (“an excellent student, superbly motivated” a former professor of hers told me), worked on the prosecution of accused Khmer Rouge war criminals in Cambodia, and then returned home to, eventually, enter politics.
Ghahraman has a keen sense of how violent rhetoric leads to violence—from her work defending and prosecuting accused war criminals, but also from a personal perspective. She is a survivor of domestic violence. “I’d go out with my friends, there’d always be a massive fight... I couldn’t turn on my phone because every time I’d turn it on I’d just get a barrage of messages that would just be something like, ‘Slut. Slut-slut-slut-slut-slut,’ or ‘Bitch-bitch-bitch-bitch-bitch-bitch.’ And I’d just be like, ‘Oh well I’ve got to turn my phone off.’ And then, eventually, it got really physical. It was just like pushing and shaking and whatever. And then it got to a point where a couple of times I got strangled.”
In her political life, being called a “bitch” is close to an every-day occurrence. Does she fear that, as in the case of her abusive partner, the violence of the words directed at her might become real violence? She brought up the example of Jo Cox, the British Labour MP who had advocated forcefully for the rights of immigrants: she was murdered by a far-right assassin who shouted “Britain first” before shooting and stabbing her. “It does scare me… [If] I have to walk out that night on my own, or I might have to be alone at home or whatever, I remember Jo Cox.”
I met Ghahraman’s partner Guy Williams, 31, at an Eden Terrace café, near where he works at TV3. He arranged his large frame over a Charlie’s orange juice and a singular rice ball from the café cabinet. The couple met several years ago at a charity event he emceed. He says he encouraged Ghahraman to get onto Twitter, assuming that—going from his own experience as a public figure—she’d get something like the same level of abuse he did. He was wrong. “What she gets is a thousand times worse and a lot more frequent.”
What he has learned, he says, is that “New Zealand politics is a shit pit and we’ve basically jumped into it and now we’re sloshing around.” He cites the furore that erupted when former Labour staffer Phil Quin, in a series of tweets, criticised Ghahraman’s defence work at the Rwanda Tribunal. Quin later apologised for calling Ghahraman a “genocide denier”. The story widened when it was revealed that neither her Green Party website profile nor her Wikipedia page made mention of her defence work, focusing instead purely on the prosecution aspect. A hashtag, #GolrizMyCV, appeared for the first time, and has trended periodically ever since. She was naïve, Williams told me, for not realising her career as a defence lawyer—a role she is proud of, and had spoken about publicly before Quin’s accusations—could be spun negatively.
It was a difficult time for Ghahraman. An old friend, a journalist with whom she had interned at Amnesty, had just died suddenly in Turkey. At the same time—not long after her maiden speech to Parliament—she started receiving death threats and hacks. Parliamentary Security later told her they were coming from Russian IP addresses. She suspects it had something to do with speaking out about Iranian human rights abuses. She often speaks of the duality of her existence: simultaneously not Kiwi enough for the domestic palate, not Iranian enough when she criticises the country of her birth.
But the criticism, Maryam Ghafoori says, is proof her daughter is doing good things. “If you are getting attacked it means you are doing something right to me. This is my personal experience.”
Ghahraman now avoids looking at the online hate she receives, but becomes circuitously aware of it when there’s an outpour of corresponding support. Young women from backgrounds similar to her own, she says, often come forward to say how much her presence in the public sphere means to them. “Those people are literally—are actually—marginalised and they are less marginalised because they can see someone who looks like them with their background in politics. That is an actual fact.”
“If she achieves nothing else,” Williams told me, “this could be her biggest achievement, breaking through and normalising a brown woman of Middle-Eastern descent in Parliament. If she can normalise that, then that’s a wonderful achievement in itself.”
It’s perhaps a measure of the place she occupies in Aotearoa’s political landscape that 2500 words into this article, I haven’t discussed Ghahraman’s political passion: justice reform, and using her expertise in the field to inform better policy for Aotearoa. “I’ve ended up with this whole other type of platform and it’s a massive privilege as well as a burden in some ways, but it’s still also a massive privilege in talking to race issues and minority issues and democracy.”
But it has taken a toll. Ghahraman, tired of the trolling, told me this might be her first and last term in Parliament. “People are like, ‘You know, you’re forging this path, it’s incredible.’ But I didn’t ask to forge the path, and maybe after one term I’ve forged it. Do I personally need to keep going when it’s so hard?”
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* An earlier version of this article misidentified Mojo Mathers as a current member of the Green Party caucus. It has since been updated.
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