Kurdish Human Rights Hero, Rez Gardi: Wanting More Than Safety Seemed Ungrateful

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She was born stateless in the slums of a refugee camp in Pakistan. There were no Disney fairy tales before the bedtime. Instead, Rez Gardi (29) was raised listening to stories about her parents risking lives to defend the rights of Kurds. She grew up fighting the wrong labels, cruel assumptions and prejudices that have set her life path: Rez became the first ever female Kurd who graduated from Harvard Law School and is now teaching refugees around the world that nobody has the right to crush their dreams.

 

Rez at the first Global Refugee Forum in the UN Palace of Nations in December 2019
Rez at the first Global Refugee Forum in the UN Palace of Nations in December 2019

Meet Rez Gardi

They called Rez Gardi “the Kurdish girl”. The “exotic friend”. The “woman of color”.

When she told her family and friends she wanted to be a lawyer, they laughed.

Why? Because no person from her community was brave enough to be different.

Not being hungry and being alive was already enough.

Luckily, Rez Gardi didn’t think the same.

A family trip where she met her Kurdish cousins changed her. Although being just a child, she felt the injustice before knowing the concept of it.

Seeing the kids her age living such different lives only because they could not change the circumstances provoked restlessness that determined what she does today.

As a human rights activist, a lawyer and a Founder of the initiative “Empower” Rez has, so far, inspired more than 20.000 young refugees not to give up and fight for a meaningful future.

 

Dear Rez, thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Update us on what projects are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working in Iraq as a Harvard Human Rights Fellow on cases for the prosecution of ISIS for their targeted genocidal campaign against the Yezidis, including mass executions, kidnapping, torture, sexual violence, and other egregious human rights abuses.

After work hours, I work on Empower, a youth-led-organization I founded to address the underrepresentation of refugees in higher education.

We empower and enable refugee youth through education, leadership, and capacity-building, so that young refugees can pursue a meaningful future.

I am leading workshops in camps across Iraq to foster participation, leadership, and empowerment opportunities.

Through our projects, we have reached over 20,000 youth globally. My dream is to expand globally to ensure every refugee youth has access to quality education

I am also one of the co-founders of the Centre for the Asia Pacific Refugee Studies, an academic institution based at the University of Auckland.

Our aim is to respond to challenges of forced displacement through evidence-based scholarship and high-impact research to inform positive approaches to support people forcibly displaced by both climate change and conflict-induced displacement.

I am launching our podcast, Unfiltered, later this year.

As the name suggests, the goal is to have unfiltered, honest conversations about some of the most pressing issues in displacement that impact the lives of those forcibly displaced and possible solutions from a range of perspectives.

 

You are globally known as a former refugee whose will to learn and thrive and a passion for justice transformed her into the first-ever female Kurd to graduate from Harvard Law School. What was a pivotal point or situation in your life that inspired you to dedicate your heart and soul to fighting for human rights, refugee rights, and especially the position of Kurds in the world?

The circumstances I was born into have shaped my interest in equality, justice, and human rights.

During Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds, my mother’s village was attacked with chemical weapons.

My grandmother and two of my aunts were killed, so my mother’s family fled to Iran as refugees.

My parents met in Iran, as teenagers, as part of a Kurdish human rights movement. They advocated for Kurdish rights and self-determination.

Instead of Cinderella, I was raised on stories about how many times my parents were imprisoned or risked death…

Instead of Cinderella, I was raised on stories about how many times my parents were imprisoned or risked death at the hands of the Iranian military who tried to suppress any sign of Kurdish existence.

Eventually, my parents were forced to escape or risk death.

They crossed the border in the back of cargo trucks into Pakistan where the presence of the UN provided a beacon of hope.

They were promised it would be six months before they were resettled.

It was nine years. I was born stateless and as a refugee experiencing the unpredictability of life and the constant threat of danger, not knowing when or where we were going next or whether we would have access to basic human rights such as food, shelter and water, let alone education.

I saw my father imprisoned for twelve months for advocating for basic human rights. I learnt about injustice and the denial of human rights long before I knew what those concepts meant.

This instilled in me the importance of standing up for what is right, even when your life is on the line.

 

What were the most challenging moments of your growing up in New Zealand as a kid, and what did you learn from it?

 Rez at the United Nations in Geneva in 2018 as a global speaker for the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges
Rez at the United Nations in Geneva in 2018 as a global speaker for the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges

When I arrived to NZ in 1998, I didn’t speak a word of English; I spoke Kurdish, Farsi, and Urdu. English was about to become my fourth language. My first day at school. I was shocked. I looked around at the class room and was mesmerized – I had no idea what anyone was saying but I observed silently. I saw so many children put their hand up to answer questions and I thought “wow, these kids are all geniuses”.

Because they were answering questions and no one was hitting them, so to me that meant they got everything correct.  You see, in Pakistan, we learned through fear: teachers would beat us with sticks if we answered a question wrong. I remember one time being dragged by my ponytail around the classroom when I pronounced a word wrong.

When I learned English, I eventually realized that it wasn’t that kids in NZ got everything right – teachers just didn’t abuse students when they were wrong!

As it turned out, when I wasn’t learning by fear, I loved school. For much of my early childhood years, I was happy and never questioned where I was from and whether I fitted in.

I played with my friends and the story of how I arrived in NZ never came up.

Then one day, it felt like everything changed. That day was September 11, 2001.

I was 10 years old.

It was a normal week at school, some of my class were on a camping trip and those of us that stayed behind were making posters about our favorite food.

I had made an artistic poster that I was really proud of (huge accomplishment for someone that struggled to even draw stick figures).

I had images of my favorite food – Dolma, a Kurdish dish, with a map of Kurdistan which pointed out where the food was from. My teacher liked it so much, she put it on the wall.

The news of 9/11 reached NZ in the early hours of the morning and the next day we all went to school.

All of a sudden, students starting pointing out that my poster had a map of “that part of the world,” that I was different, saying “Oh you’re from that place close to Osama Bin Laden right so you must be one of them”.

They started calling me a terrorist and made bomb sounds when I walked past.

I wanted to tell them, “I’ve had family killed at the hands of dictator regimes and terrorists; I’m on the good side!” But no one listened.

As a victim of terrorism, I was now being conflated with a terrorist. And that hurt.

I was bullied and physically beaten at school. I felt powerless and voiceless.

So, for a while I went into this sense of denial about where I was from and being different.

Instead, I focused on fitting in and tried to be as Kiwi as possible (Kiwi means New Zealander). It was hard enough for me, as a kid, to understand why I was born stateless and as a refugee, let alone trying to explain it to others.

So, I started lying. I told people that I was born in Auckland, had never been outside New Zealand, and spoke only English.

When people would ask “where are you from?” I would say “guess” and then say “yes, yes that’s right that’s where I’m from” to whatever they guessed.

So, I’ve been Brazilian, Persian, Greek, Arab, South African, Macedonian, Spanish. I must admit my geography skills improved as a result of having to quickly find out about these places.

I resented my differences. I resented being a different race, being a different religion, having a different name and looking different.

I just wanted to be like everyone else.

 

The first time you entered the Harvard Law classroom was as a tourist. The next time – as its student. Tell us more about how you managed to turn daydreaming into a reality and making your greatest wish come true?

When I was in high school, a careers advisor told me I “should consider other options” because law school would be too hard for someone like me — a refugee with no history of education in the family.

I wanted to scream and ask why I couldn’t be the one to change the narrative?

But I held it in. Maybe she was right.

Rez with kids at Khanke Camp
Rez with kids at Khanke Camp

When I told people in my community I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up, they laughed.

They thought it was cute but unrealistic because barely anyone around us even finished school and it wasn’t for “people like us”.

I only had to look around me, at my brother and sister who didn’t finish high school, to see the truth in what they were saying.

But somehow, despite all odds I got into law school and I didn’t do so bad.

In 2015, I was one of hundreds of tourists walking around Harvard.

I took photos in a classroom that happened to be open, pretending to be a student. I laughed at myself because the concept of me being a student here seemed so ridiculous.

People like me didn’t finish school, and people like me most definitely didn’t end up at the best universities in the world.

You see, all my life I was trained to survive.

Being a Kurd meant that our existence was based on trying to survive just another day, to reach safety. That’s all we ever dreamed of. Wanting more than safety and survival seemed ungrateful.

Being a Kurd meant that our existence was based on trying to survive just another day, to reach safety. That’s all we ever dreamed of. Wanting more than safety and survival seemed ungrateful.

So, there I stood, “Rez the ungrateful refugee” dreaming of things that were not for me.

As I stood at the Harvard Law School sign outside the building I now know to be Pound Hall, I asked a random passerby to take a photo of me.

He asked, “do you go here?” And I whispered to myself, trembling with fear, “no, but I will”.

At that moment I decided to do everything in my power to come back, this time as a real student. It wasn’t just because I wanted to study at this school; but it was all the barriers, the stereotypes, the assumptions that I wanted to crush.

After keeping it a secret for so long, I decided to share this dream.

Every time I told people I wanted to go to Harvard Law School for my Master’s, they laughed and said, “that’s ambitious”.

But I got there because I decided to believe in myself instead. I often think back to that little girl with her one-legged doll sitting at the table of that American style burger joint in Pakistan.

She would have never imagined she would have the life that I have today.

 

You are currently working as a Harvard Human Rights Fellow within a team of international lawyers to gather evidence of the genocidal acts carried out by ISIS against the Yezidis. What is the most difficult part of this process for you as a legal professional?

What these women have endured and the traumatic experiences they have faced is incomprehensible. It is beyond words. As a lawyer, I am trained to separate emotion and work but I am still human.

When I am sitting in front of a survivor listening to their stories, I cannot help but feel immense sadness that they had to go through this and feel tremendous anger that there are people so inhumane they can inflict this kind of pain on another human.

Before I went into Human Rights law, I was a corporate litigator. The hours were long and the work was stressful.

In Human Rights Law, it’s stressful in a different way. Speaking regularly with victims of such vile crimes, secondary trauma is a very common effect among human rights lawyers.

At the end of the day, we’re all human. We’re not robots, as much as they tell you to separate your work from your life.

Sometimes, as you listen to the stories of the various victims we work with, you just want to break down and cry.

I need to consistently remind myself to practice self care in this regard. But still, while the experiences are hard for me to hear, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the person recounting their own horrors to me.

I can’t help but think this could have happened to my family, my sister, my mother, my nieces, me.

Why should anyone go through this? The world needs to hear their stories.

I know that through our justice efforts, we will never be able to give back what they lost, but those who are responsible need to be held accountable and justice must be served.

 

Once you said: Legally, you’re no longer a refugee once you’re permanently settled. Just legally. How do you feel deep inside, mentally and spiritually and is it possible to escape from the tag of a refugee after the long way you and your family have crossed to reach freedom?

In New Zealand, I always stood out. Throughout high school and law school I was Kiwi but not Kiwi enough. I was “too brown” and “too foreign” in some contexts but in other contexts culturally “white enough” to fit in and be involved because I understood mainstream references.

I could relate to pop culture and what it meant to have grown up with Kiwi culture. But the door was always half open for me and I knew that door could close at any time, without warning.

A reminder that I shouldn’t get too comfortable because I was always going to be a foreigner.

I was the Kurdish girl. The refugee girl. The Middle Easterner. The exotic friend. The woman of color. When they wanted a “diverse” perspective, the viewpoint of a “person of color”, they called on me. I represented the “other”. I had authority to speak on issues that white people couldn’t.

Some days it was an advantage, but mostly it was tiring. People would always ask “where are you really from?”

After 20 years of living in New Zealand, the word “refugee” had come to define me; I was still an outsider; a second-class citizen. Maybe I always would be.

 

You are a Founder of Empower – a charitable organization that helps refugee students to gain higher education through a mentoring and support program. How many people have you helped so far and what are your key goals until the end of 2020?

Rez speaking at the Eisenhower Conference PARTNERS IN HUMANITY: Managing Harmony & Diversity in Wellington in 2019
Rez speaking at the Eisenhower Conference PARTNERS IN HUMANITY: Managing Harmony & Diversity in Wellington in 2019

In Pakistan, I was denied an education due to my refugee status. Now, I am a Harvard-educated lawyer fighting for refugee youth to have access to education. Through my work I have been able to provide workshops and mentoring programs for over 20,000 youth.

I remember in high school I was told I “should consider other options” because law school would. be too difficult for someone like me: a refugee with no history of education in the family. I witnessed my older siblings drop-out of school due to lack of support. I heard my cousins in Kurdistan share their dreams of education as they only had sporadic classes when it wasn’t too dangerous.

I heard the stories of my father studying in a cave while bombs were going off and my mother dropping out of school at age 10 to become the head of her family after her mother was killed in chemical attacks.

I visited a school in a camp in Kenya where one teacher taught 950 students. Only 5% of students attended secondary school in that camp.

This is why I founded Empower, to address the critical gap of refugee youth in education and change those statistics.

Our mission is to empower, educate, and enable refugee youth through education, leadership, and capacity-building to pursue meaningful paths of their choice.

Currently I am leading workshops in camps across Iraq using innovative ways to access education because there simply aren’t enough schools to accommodate all the youth.

As well as our mentoring program and monthly workshops, we have partnered with universities and organizations around the globe to create online programs and have enabled virtual access to programs in leading campuses around the world.

We also offer ongoing support through our monthly newsletter and our online speaker series amplifying refugee youth voices around the globe.

One of the keys to success is in having role models who look like you, having networks, and getting the right advice.

One of the keys to success is in having role models who look like you, having networks, and getting the right advice.

Whilst this is accessible for people who are privileged enough to grow up in these environments, I am determined to create this access for all refugee youth.

 

Who do you admire the most and why?

Leyla Zana. She was the first Kurdish woman to be elected to serve in Turkish Parliament.

Unfortunately, she was never able to execute her role a member of Parliament given her first speech in parliament was spoken in Kurdish, while speaking Kurdish in Turkey was very much illegal.

She was arrested thereafter, and spent a great deal of her career as a political prisoner.

Her bravery is so inspiring. She’s a fearless leader when it comes to demanding better rights for Kurds in Turkey.

Also Helen Clark! Despite how busy Helen Clark is, she makes time for youth and is very efficient on social media. This is a distinguishing factor for her when compared to many other global leaders. I first met her in Copenhagen at the Women Deliver Conference.

She was very inspirational but at the same time very humble and down to earth. She made jokes and put me at ease.

It was nice to see what a kind-hearted and humorous personality she has – it’s easy to forget that high profile successful women are still human.

She took a genuine interest in me and wanted to know more on what I was doing. I was very flattered as she is an extremely busy and successful women yet she took the time to get to know me.

I have so much respect for everything she does; she is a role model, especially for Kiwi women.

Helen Clark is intellectual, has strong values and a strong work ethic. She is fair and tolerant.

Her leadership is unparalleled. She has made the hard but necessary decisions to make UNDP more effective, and her effectiveness was recognized when she was reappointed unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013.

Under Helen’s efficacious leadership, UNDP has topped the Global Campaign for Aid Transparency’s 2014 index of major worldwide aid institutions.

Helen has always been a champion of diversity and of the empowerment of women. She said at the panel of Women Deliver 2016 –

“If women were more prominent in decision-making we would not see the level of conflict we have in the world today.”

Photos: Eisenhower Fellowships


More interesting people here:

Award-Winning Humanitarian Stefan Nikolic: the Boy Who Beat Cancer Is the Crown of Everything I Have Done So Far

HE Sara Al Madani: Failures Made Me Who I Am Today


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