It’s easy to carry on pretty much oblivious of countries remote from, and different from, Aotearoa. Somalia, with its 14 million or so people on the African coast, north of Kenya, is one of those, despite the battles that catch the headlines from time to time. But one special Somali migrant has made enough waves to prompt our interest in his background.
Guled Mire was brought here as a youngster with a bunch of brothers and sisters by his mum over 20 years ago — surviving the racism in Hamilton and then thriving as a community leader working against a number of ills in our society. Here he talks with Dale about his time so far.
Kia ora, Guled. You’ve become widely known and respected in Aotearoa in recent years. But not too many of us know much about your background, or your full name — the name you brought to this country 22 years ago when you were six.
My full name is Guled Farah Mire. It comes from Somalia where names have a lot of meaning and purposes. It commonly serves as a way of identifying your lineage, your heritage, who you are, where you’ve come from, your tribe, your iwi, and so much more.
I was born in the early 1990s in Mogadishu, Somalia. My first name, Guled, loosely translated means “successful”. I was given that name at the height of the Somali Civil War. My family were connected to some of the opposition movements who, at the time, overthrew the government.
And because that was a “successful” coup, the name Guled was chosen for me. But, as we know, the mission turned out to be bloody ugly and later led to a civil war that to this day continues to forcibly displace millions. And the nation of Somalia hasn’t really been able to move on since then. It’s turned into turmoil, and there’s been so much fighting.
So me and my family — which included my mum and eight of my siblings — fled to neighbouring Kenya when I was two, and we became refugees. We had no choice. We were put in that situation. Then, having spent some years at a refugee camp in Kenya, we were lucky enough to be offered an opportunity to resettle here in New Zealand.
At the time, we didn’t know what New Zealand was. We’d never heard about it before. We spoke hardly any English, but we knew what “new” meant. So we assumed that it was literally a new country that had just been created for us, although the officials in Africa told us it was a part of Australia.
It’s obviously been a big change for you. So your mum arrives here with her nine kids. What next?
We landed at Auckland Airport, but the resettlement destination was Hamilton. We didn’t get to make a choice about where we’d go. That decision was already made for us. As a six-year-old at the time, it was all a really big adventure for me.
Nothing made sense and I never really understood what was happening. At the time, I didn’t even realise that we were refugees and assumed that my childhood upbringing was the norm. The thing that stuck out for me was that there were so many white people. I’d never seen so many before coming to New Zealand, so it was quite a culture shock at first.
And it would’ve been vastly different at school when you arrived as a dark-featured little boy from Africa, even though there would’ve been a lot of Māori kids there, too.
We did stick out because this was in the late 1990s and it was the first time that New Zealand had taken a substantial number of black African migrants. So that in itself was quite a shock to the Kiwi system. And, as a result, we experienced racism and discrimination from a very young age.
I remember walking to and from primary school and being chased by skinheads. We were settled in a Housing New Zealand home in a lower socio-economic area. A lot of our neighbours were Māori and Pasifika. And, to be honest, I don’t think anyone had thought out how to create harmonious communities in the mix of new arrivals, tangata whenua and others.
So there were some initial misunderstandings, even though we had so much in common with Māori and Pasifika culture in terms of the concepts of whānau, hapū, and iwi. There was so much commonality, but it wasn’t fostered, and an environment wasn’t created for us to get to know each other.
But we slowly overcame that, and, growing up, some of my closest friends have been Māori and Pasifika.
I’ve often thought new arrivals, particularly refugees, might actually appreciate being welcomed by our people on to a marae. I wonder whether that might be a better introduction to our land. What are your thoughts there, Guled?
One hundred percent. At the time, it obviously wasn’t well thought out. We never had any such welcome. But in my current work, I deal with a lot of former refugees and now an integral part of the resettlement programme is to welcome refugees on to a marae. And it’s really nice to see that.
I wish the same experience had been afforded to us when we came. But I guess, in some ways, we were the guinea pigs, in that we were the first of the large numbers to arrive. They really didn’t know how to deal with us back then. It was kind of a hit and miss.
Lessons learned, I suppose. I think that sort of introduction is really important. But I think it’s even more important that tangata whenua should have a greater say in the resettlement process and be involved not just in welcoming refugees, but also in helping them become New Zealand-Kiwi citizens — getting to know the people of this land, their practices, their norms, their culture. And to understand them a little bit better.
That’s something we’ve always called for. So it’s nice to see that it’s become a key feature of the settlement process, as we speak, but we must do more to foster these important connections.
Kia ora, Guled. As you grew up, perhaps you managed to overcome that initial disadvantage. Did you have much interaction with Māori as you grew up?
I did. They were my neighbours and we became close friends. As a kid, I’d go over to their houses. Their families were really welcoming, despite the misunderstandings. I was extremely lucky to be living in communities with significant Māori and Pasifika numbers.
Here we’re talking about skin colour, culture, and nationality. But there’s the religious aspect too. You’re Muslim, but most of your Māori and Pasifika mates would have connections with Christianity. And it’s fair to say that few of us raised in Aotearoa know anything much about the Muslim faith. So Muslims are seen by many as the outsiders, rather than brothers and sisters. What would you say of the challenges of denomination?
I’d say there’s some truth in that. But Islamic faith has a lot of similarities with Māori culture and Māori religion. I think that’s often overlooked. I’ve seen a lot of commonality between my faith, my culture, my ethnicity and that of the indigenous people of this land, and as well as Pasifika communities.
No doubt, despite the friendships you had in your schooldays, your confidence was knocked at times by the racism you encountered. I sense that you’ve well and truly found your feet now. But there must have been some damage.
It was really damaging. Right from the get go, I was taken out of my classes to do ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). It never made sense to me because I was quickly picking up the language anyway. Yet here I was, being taken out of mainstream English classes to be sent to ESOL.
Then, at high school, my teachers told me university wasn’t for people like me. They said I should consider other stuff, even though I’d shown an interest in higher education and going to university.
And that really shattered me. It made me not believe in myself. It made me lose my self-confidence, and lose faith in my own abilities. I began to internalise these messages, to believe what my teachers were telling me, that university wasn’t for people like me. So I dropped out.
Years later, I was determined to go back to university. But it still affected me because I remember giving myself a six-year window to do a three-year course, on the assumption, because of those messages, that I’d struggle and fail a couple of courses in between.
But I began to do really well. And not just well, but extremely well. I was getting really good grades, graduated, won a scholarship, and even went on to complete post-graduate studies. My experience isn’t unique, either. I know of many other kids growing up in this country, being given similar messages and, as a result, having trouble recognising their potential.
You, however, have successfully navigated that education path and spent some years in policy development where there’s scope for bringing about change. But what is your current mahi?
I’m a senior policy advisor in the public sector and have worked for several agencies since graduating. From a young age, I’ve had a desire to make a difference. Working in policy gives me the opportunity to use my strengths to come up with solutions to complex systems problems and social issues. Because of the hardships I’ve had growing up, I’d like to make life a bit easier for others who are on their journey. That’s my motivation.
I’ve since been lucky enough to have worked on a wide range of important policy issues. I started with one of my areas of academic expertise — diversity and inclusion policy. But I’ve since branched out to work on local government policy, then health and safety policy, and more recently on employment relations policy.
It’s really humbling to be in the position that I’m in. It’s a privilege to give back to a country and a community that have been giving so much to me and my whānau. But it’s also a privilege to be able to bring the perspective that I do to the public sector.
Guled, in the 22 years you’ve been a New Zealander, there’s been a major focus on the Treaty of Waitangi and the efforts to go some way towards honouring that 1840 deal. How do you view that issue?
There’s a big misconception between the communities that I’m from and other ethnic communities in this country that the Treaty isn’t relevant for them — that it’s something between Pākehā and Māori. And I absolutely reject that. In my view, the Treaty is an agreement between tangata whenua and the settlers who, at the time, were represented by the British Crown.
In my view, I’m an extension of the settler, and, as such, the Treaty is very important and relevant to me and so many others. Unfortunately, it isn’t necessarily viewed that way. There’s a lot of misconceptions about the Treaty in our communities. I’m committed to helping counter those misconceptions and I think we need to do a lot more.
Part of the problem stems from education in schools. The Treaty isn’t taught in a way that’s relevant to our immigrants, but it’s something that’s important to all New Zealanders. It doesn’t matter what background they come from, whether they’re Māori or not. And we need to do a lot more to make sure that it’s more widely understood and accepted in real life.
Let’s turn now to two organisations. First there’s the African Youth Forum which you founded.
Yes. That was in 2016. Essentially, the idea was to hold an event, once a year, where we could bring together African youth, community leaders, academics and policy makers to discuss the issues hindering us from reaching our potential — and coming up with the solutions.
In our first year, I worked on a research report which looked at African youth experiences with the police and the justice system. The findings were quite harrowing, with stories of racial profiling and police brutality towards our rangatahi. And I was really committed to using the African Youth Forum as a platform for discussing those issues.
The launch was highly publicised and highly successful. Since then, we’ve gone on to talk about various issues each year. It’s entirely youth-led and I’ve kind of stepped back into a support role. Last year, the focus was on mental health and wellbeing because that’s a particularly big issue within the African community.
Then you’ve set up Third Culture Minds.
Yes. That’s a registered charity organisation I established last year, to advance positive mental health and wellbeing outcomes for young people of migrant and refugee backgrounds. We do that through sharing information about where people can find help. Breaking down the cultural stigma through initiatives like our mental health workshops.
We work with service providers to ensure that their services are responsive to the needs of our young people. Obviously, we’re not clinical experts in mental health, but we are experts on what works best for our communities and what our needs are.
We’ve had a lot to do with the aftermath of Christchurch, in terms of supporting our Muslim youth during a very difficult time — and helping to provide a safe environment for them to talk about mental health and seek the help they need.
While we’re on this issue of working together, how satisfying has it been for you to have helped change a policy towards refugees from Africa and the Middle East who previously were unwelcome unless they had family living here. You agitated for that change, didn’t you?
It’s extremely satisfying. The policy in itself was based on a racist assumption that refugees from Africa and the Middle East are some sort of security threat. So, for me, it’s been absolutely satisfying that other people who’ve been languishing in refugee camps throughout the world, will now have the same opportunity that me and my family have had.
It’s really sad to think that it’s taken a terrorist attack and 51 lives lost for us to bring about that policy change. If what happened in Christchurch hadn’t happened, I highly doubt that we would’ve been able to bring about the change. So, for me, it’s been satisfying, and also a privilege to have led that campaign.
But, at the same time, there is a bit of me that feels sad that it’s taken over a decade for that to happen. I think about how many people have been denied opportunities. How many people have lost lives.
It’s incredibly important, now more than ever, that we strive to become a more welcoming and compassionate nation.
The Christchurch attack was a sobering reminder that we’re not far removed from the troubles of other lands — and that terrorism is a reality globally. As a young Muslim man, how have you coped with the tragedy?
It’s been really, really hard. I found myself in a position where I’ve had to be the voice and the face of a community who, for so long, have had to fight just to be heard. We tried to raise alarm bells, and make the point that New Zealanders aren’t as tolerant and diverse as we may like to think we are. These problems of racism and white supremacy in New Zealand have existed for a long time.
And, after the shooting, it took a great deal of toll on our emotions because you were expected to be really strong out there in the face of the community while, at the same time, you’re almost dying inside.
We’ve been running around trying to respond to different needs, trying to support our affected victims, families, and communities — and, at the same time, trying to advocate for change. It’s just been full-on. And we, as a community, haven’t had the chance to process it all.
Guled, as we head towards the end of our conversation, I just want to pay tribute to your whānau, because you come across as a confident, principled, articulate, young man. And your development, I sense, can’t have happened in isolation. I’m especially curious about your mum. And your dad because, no doubt, some of your smarts have come from your old man, too.
Thank you. My father, Farah Mire, passed away as a result of the Somali Civil war. So I don’t have much memory, growing up, of him. I was raised by a very strong single mother. I’m the third youngest of nine children. I’m the first to graduate in my family. The first to go to university. The first to have a successful career. So that’s meant carrying quite a lot of weight on my shoulders.
But I take a lot of inspiration from my mother, Hawo Jama. My mother was never educated. She never went through a formal education system. At the age of 12, she had to work full-time just to support her family because she was the oldest. Essentially, she had to raise her family.
My mother is the strongest person I know. She doesn’t just inspire me. She’s my everything. She’s the person who motivates me to do all the work I do. I honestly don’t know where my life would be if it hadn’t been for her. She’s an absolutely amazing person.
Thank you, Guled. And, finally, do you have any other comment you’d like to make?
I guess the main message I have for everyone is that we all have a part to play in shaping a much more inclusive, diverse, welcoming, humane Aotearoa. It’s much more than just countering racism and discrimination. And it’s not just the responsibility of the government. It’s for every single one of us.
So reach out. Reach out to those who come from a different background. Try to get to know them and hear a bit about their story. That can go a long way in helping shape the society we want for our future generations.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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