One look at my name will tell you I’m not from around here. I might not look obviously Iranian, but through my dad, the culture has always been a huge part of my life. In 2017, I travelled to Iran for the first time.
And for the first time I began to notice the way people in New Zealand thought about the Middle East—as a constant war zone, and that I was risking my life to travel there. In talking to other New Zealanders originally from countries often considered “unsafe”, similar misconceptions emerged. New Zealand-born Egyptian Mariam Seif, a 23-year old pharmacist, for example, has been asked if she rides a camel and has been casually called a terrorist over dinner.
Massey University senior lecturer in security studies Dr Negar Partow has also been asked if she has a camel back home in Iran. It surprises her that “people don’t even know how developed the country is”.
Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have their fair share of problems, but what strikes Dr Partow the most is the fact that what the media portrays is often totally different to what is actually happening on the ground. She says the media most commonly shows Middle Eastern/African countries only when acts of terror or war occur, or to highlight poverty.
Dawit Arshak, 54, who is originally from Ethiopia, was a taxi driver in Auckland when a young man and his girlfriend got in for a ride. The first thing they asked him was where he was from. Dawit told them Africa and the young man asked, “Do you know what we call you?” Dawit didn’t, and the young man responded, “Slaves.”
In return, Dawit decided to share some history with his European patron. “I started telling him a story, African stories and the migration and the slavery, and at the end I said to him, 'I am from Ethiopia, make an effort to read books about your ancestors who are buried in my land.' He paid me and he said, “Thank you bro,” and I said, “Yes, you can call me bro, but not slave.”
I wanted to find out more about the experiences of migrants to Aotearoa from countries often thought unsafe in the West. Their stories, below, touch on those misconceptions, their experiences of racism here in New Zealand, and the beauty and hospitality of their home countries and cultures.
Mariam Seif, 23
Hi Mariam, what are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about your home country?
Basically one of the biggest things is when I tell people I’m from Egypt they go, “Oh do you have to like ride camels everywhere?” When people say that, I genuinely don’t know if they’re joking or if they’re serious. Then they just immediately assume my religion – “That means you’re Muslim” – when in fact in Egypt there’s quite a lot of different religions. It might be a majority-Muslim country but, still, I don’t come to New Zealand and assume that everyone is an atheist because they have a high percentage of atheism here.
Another really interesting thing they always ask me is what it was like living as a Christian in Egypt. I feel like they always just expect me to say it was awful and that I just hate every Muslim person that’s ever existed. But genuinely, like my childhood best friends are Muslim and I’ve never had any issues or conflict with them.
They also ask, “Oh, so like do you guys like still have slaves in Egypt? Do you have your own slave?” which is pretty ridiculous also. But I feel people are getting a bit better at it, people are more informed.
How do those assumptions make you feel?
I’m quite sad that people assume that you literally came from the middle of nowhere. People just also assume that you’re a crude person. I have lots of people always worried I’m going to think everything’s wrong and everything’s inappropriate.
What’s the worst reaction you’ve had, when you’ve told someone you’re from Egypt?
I was at a BYO with some friends, and this girl was like, “Oh Mariam, what’s your full name on Facebook, I wanna tag you in something.” I was just about to answer her when this guy said, “If you just write 'Allah akbar' and put like an explosive, her name will come up.”
I said to him “What did you just say?” and he’s like, “I was just joking”. So I told him “I’m Christian, so 'Allah akbar' is not even something we say. However, some of my closest friends are Muslim and they’re much better than anyone else I might’ve seen in my life, especially you, so if you’re going to go around saying insulting things like that about my really close friends, and just assuming that they’re terrorists because of a bunch of movies that you’ve watched, then you have no idea what’s coming at you.”
The feeling of always being in this category just because of where you were born or your last name, or your skin colour—he doesn’t understand what it feels like to live with that every day of your life and always have people make these assumptions.
What do you think the best way people can educate themselves about countries like Egypt?
If they were to go that would be amazing, but I guess that’s not the most logical way to fix it. I suppose it’s really important not to always believe what you hear on the news because these days they only show you the part they want to show you because they want to portray a place in a certain way. I’m like, “Yeah sure, but I’ve been there, I’ve lived there, and I can tell you with like 100 percent certainty that’s not the case.”
Zahid Hamid, 36
What is the main reaction of other New Zealanders when you tell them where you’re from?Well, to be honest, when they ask where you’re from and you say Afghanistan, they automatically associate you with poverty, war, and barbarism and bombing and all these terrible things. I guess one of the worst experiences I have had with a lot of people is when I say Afghanistan, they automatically associate Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden and 9/11. And we had nothing to do with that.
We have a stall at the Auckland International Cultural Festival and last year we showed scenery from Afghanistan. I was quite amazed by the reaction that we got from people—they never thought Afghanistan would be such a beautiful country. They said they would never had thought that Afghanistan would have mountains and rivers and trees, all they see in the media is just desert and wars.
Most of the time when you tell someone you’re from the Middle East or Iran or Afghanistan, they automatically think of uneducated backward people, like you’ve lived in the Stone Age. When I talk to people in English they are impressed and surprised by the fact we have schools in Afghanistan that teach English.
Are there a lot of other assumptions that are made, when you say “I’m Afghani”?
We have a very strong cricket team and that has changed perception quite a bit with Kiwis who follow cricket. We produced some of the best cricketers currently in the world, and fortunately that is changing the perception quite a bit.
What about when you travel back to Afghanistan, what are some of the reactions you might get from people then?
They say, “Oh is it safe, is it okay?” I was in another job a few years ago when I went to Afghanistan, but then I sort of extended my holiday and I’m from very remote area, and had very limited internet access, so I didn’t let my company know. When I came back to New Zealand, two weeks later, my boss’ wife came and said, she was going to go and tell the New Zealand Police to say we haven’t heard from him for a while and if they could make some enquiries.
But going back to Afghanistan now, I wouldn’t say it’s very safe. One of the things is there’s suicide bombers: you don’t know when someone’s going to come and blow up, and that is a threat but it’s not everywhere. It only happens in small parts of Kabul, and it’s not in the entire country. When I go to Afghanistan, I go all the way to the Eastern part and there’s no problem. People treat you with respect if you respect them. Just don’t invade their personal space, and you should be fine.
If a Kiwi went to Afghanistan, what do you think they would experience?
They would experience the hospitality of the local people and hopefully try different food. We do have very good scenery, mountains and rivers, and I read an article that we have some of the best ski slopes in the world, but it hasn’t been explored yet.
What do you see for the future of Afghanistan?
Afghanistan has trillions of wealth from minerals and that hasn’t been explored yet, so hopefully if there’s peace one day and if we explore those mines, I don’t think there’ll be any poor in Afghanistan: we’d be richer than Dubai.
One of the problems is the media. When they go they only show the poor people or maybe the war, but that’s not everyday life in Afghanistan. Over the last 15 years, since the US invasion, yes, there’s war but Afghanistan has had tremendous improvement in our IT sector and banking and everything, so things are going in the right direction. Once we get peace—and hopefully it’s very soon—things will change.
How do you think people should broaden their knowledge of the Middle East?
Auckland is so diverse, and I’m pretty sure you’d find someone from each country here, so just talk to the local people and you can get a much nicer picture than what you get from the media.
Rumbi Tomu, 27
What sort of assumptions do people make when they meet you?
Growing up here, the main thing is someone sees you and they ask you a question like “Helloooo, HOW ARE YOU?” and then they are surprised by your English proficiency.
Sometimes, you just don’t know where you belong, like what are you supposed to do? That was the main thing when I went back to Zimbabwe, they ask me where I’m from and they don’t believe I’m actually one of them. I come to New Zealand and it’s the same thing. So where am I?
If you tell people you’re from Zimbabwe, what sort of reactions do you typically get?
The main one will always be “You’ve got good English’ or “You don’t look like an African”, but what do they look like, you know? People usually think I’m from America or England even though I’ve never been there. I think the Africans they think are the ones they see on TV, you know?
What would be like one of the worst reactions when you’ve told someone where you’re from?
Not for me but for my sister, some are like “Wow, a real life African.” I don’t think they’d ever seen one so they’re like “Oh my gosh” and try to touch her, her skin, her hair. But you know you can’t even blame them because it’s just ignorance.
And what are some of the assumptions they make about Zimbabwe?
Just that we all live in huts surrounded by animals. No, we actually have mansions and nicer houses than here and our houses are made out of brick and they’re like “Whaaat?!” All they see is animals and people jumping up and down. They think that’s Africa.
What’s something you wish people knew about your home country?
That it’s beautiful. Full stop. Just education as a whole, because the people are smart, people are super smart, and then you come here and you have to literally start from scratch and people don’t understand that it can be hard. So just be nice, learn information before you ask stupid questions.
How do you think people should educate themselves about those other countries?
It’s up to us to tell our stories, individually, as a collective, whatever, just let people know and then they’ll be intrigued to find out more. It’s a chain reaction.
Dawit Arshak, 54
What do New Zealanders say when you tell them where you are from?
I used to drive a taxi, and any person who jumps in my taxi is asking me a question. First thing they say is “Who are you? Where are you from? Why you are here?” What I found out is all are just blinded by the media, so the moment I said to them I am from Ethiopia, they said, ‘Oh, you are lucky to be here.’ Because they know about the 1973 drought, but they don’t know that drought was only just a small part of the country. But it’s out there, just for the benefit of fundraising. Still some big NGOs are using some of the pictures.
I tell them I knew nothing about New Zealand except for the fact there are 60 million sheep, so I was expecting all of you, in your backyard, to have 20 sheep. Trying to let them understand what it’s like to be blinded.
The problems is for us, we haven’t done much to expose our world into this world. Maybe we never had a platform from which we can publish.
When you say you’re from Ethiopia, what would you like people to picture?
Well, as for me, I’m an educator here, educating the society, because they don’t know things about me. I’m not expecting them to know about me, I’m not expecting them to define who Dawit is, but I will tell them who am I, why I came here, what my country looks like.
Ethiopia is a country of respect and love. In Ethiopia it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from. When you come to the country, you are respected as a guest.