Kurdish refugee Sarkawt Abdullazada is celebrating World Refugee Day today at the Mangere Resettlement Centre where his family fled Saddam Hussein's regime in 1998.

1 What was your childhood like?

I was a baby when my family fled Iran in 1979. The leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared jihad against the Kurdish people so nearly 70,000 of us had to run away to the remote mountains of Northern Iraq. We were caught in the middle of a very bloody war between Iran and Iraq. Either army could attack us at any minute. I didn't really have a childhood. I remember running from mountain to mountain hiding from bombardments. We lived in tents made from blue plastic bags so that when the bombs came we could quickly collect everything and run.

2 Where were you during Saddam Hussein's Kurdish genocide in 1988?

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The Kurdish people are spread across Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Most of the 186,000 Kurds killed with chemical gas or shot and buried in mass graves during Saddam's Anfal genocide were from the cities of northern Iraq. My father was a member of Iran's largest Kurdish political party, the PDKI, which was hiding in the mountains at the time. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 the Kurds seized the chance to stage an uprising against Saddam and capture Northern Iraq. My father, uncle and close friends fought. I was only 9 but I remember everything.

3 Why did your family apply for refugee status?

The Iranian regime began a campaign to assassinate key PDKI figures. We were scared for my father's life so we applied to the UNHCR along with hundreds of other Kurdish families. Our case was sent to Geneva. From there countries like Sweden, Denmark and Holland take a set quota. New Zealand takes 750 refugees a year. We were lucky enough to be accepted here, otherwise we'd probably be dead by now. We had no legal documents. With no official identity, anyone could kill us at any time. We couldn't get jobs or rent houses. Getting our New Zealand passports was an unforgettable moment.

4 What was it like arriving at the Mangere Resettlement Centre at age 12 with your parents and four siblings?

On the bus from the airport Mum and Dad had tears coming down their faces. I don't know if they were happy or sad tears. When we entered the camp we were surprised to find there were other Kurdish people. It was nice not to be the only ones. We spent six weeks in the camp. We couldn't speak any English so at the beginning it was very hard. We had to start with A,B,C. They taught us the basics about New Zealand culture, the police, Work and Income. Then eight of the Kurdish families settled in Auckland and the other seven moved to Christchurch.

5 How did you find a place to live?

A volunteer found us a house to rent in Te Atatu. She enrolled me and my sisters at Rutherford College, found us a family doctor, activated our ATM cards and showed us how to go to Pak'n'Save. Usually volunteers stay with the family for about six months but ours was a very busy lady with lots of her own kids so after a few weeks we didn't see her again. It was a hard time. That's why we volunteer at the camp now to help resettle new Kurdish people.

6 What were the main cultural differences you noticed in that first year, 1998?

When a Maori group performed a haka at the camp most of the kids started crying and to be honest I was a little scared they might come back and kill us. There was no Middle Eastern food like pita bread or basmati rice. The first kebab shop opened in Queen St in 2000. New Zealand was very quiet at night, everything closed down at 5pm. In the Middle Eastern summer people spend the hot days inside with air conditioning and then go out at night for dinner with their families. Another big difference was the need for a car. We didn't know how to drive so we'd walk 6km to Pak'n'Save.

Sarkawt Abdullazada in his automotive shop. Photo / Nick Reed
Sarkawt Abdullazada in his automotive shop. Photo / Nick Reed

7 How did you survive financially?

My parents were unable to work because they had health problems. They still can't speak English. So we lived on a benefit until I was old enough to get a job at 16 as a chef at Mecca in the Viaduct during the America's Cup. That money supported my family here and some family back home. It was a relief when my sister started working too. In one year we saved enough to buy our first car. My other sister has now finished an accounting degree and my youngest sister is studying law at Auckland University.

8 Did your parents have high expectations for your education?

They're always telling us to make the most of our opportunities here. My biggest regret is not finishing my tertiary education. But I did manage to work my way up to running Mecca in Mission Bay. By 22 I had saved a $35,000 deposit and bought my first house in Glen Eden. Then I started my own restaurant in Kumeu called Mykonos and owned a few takeaways in Lincoln Rd. I had to sell it all when I got hit by a drunk driver. My back was badly injured and basically I never recovered. I was on ACC for years. Now I help my friend run his business, Quick Stop Auto Repair in New Lynn. I'm hoping to be self-employed again one day.

9 How did you meet your wife?

At a friend's wedding in Christchurch. Her family were also among the Kurds who fled Iran in 1979. Nearly 40,000 were captured by Iraqi forces and shifted to a camp in Ramadi where they lived for 25 years. Her family came to New Zealand three years after us. She works for the Auckland Regional Migrant Service and the WISE Collective which supports refugee women to use their skills in small business. We have a daughter age 6 and a son age 7.

10 What values do you hope to instil in your children?

I think my success in this country has been because I've adopted Kiwi culture. Although we speak Kurdish at home I tell the children when we're out, we're to mix. We were amazed when our girl's teacher told us she loves sharing her culture with her classmates. In Iran it's illegal to speak Kurdish or wear nal Kurdish clothes. I hope our children become good New Zealand citizens and if one day we have an independent Kurdistan take everything they learned in this country and inject it back home.

11 Being Muslim and Middle Eastern, do you ever get accused of being terrorists?

No. Kurdish people are a mix of religions; 80 per cent Sunni Muslim, 10 per cent Shia Muslim, 10 per cent Christian, Jewish, Bahai and other faiths. For us nationality comes first. We fight for Kurdistan side by side regardless of religion. Most Kurds are pretty secular. Women have equal rights and aren't required to wear scarves. A quarter of MPs in Northern Iraq's Kurdish Parliament are women.

12 Do you think New Zealand should be doing more to help refugees?

New Zealand has been doing great but I believe it has the capacity to do more. 750 people a year is very small compared to other countries. Refugees put a lot back into New Zealand because we are grateful to be here. Because we missed out as children we work harder to achieve a better future for our children.

• 20 June is World Refugee Day, facebook.com/World-Refugee-Day-New-Zealand, arcc.org.nz, settlement.org.nz, amnesty.org.nz