Helping organisations feel more confident in including former refugees and members of the Muslim community in the workplace was the aim of a Diversity Works NZ breakfast event hosted recently by law firm Russell McVeagh.

Partnering with Refugees As Survivors NZ (RASNZ), Diversity Works' chief executive, Rachel Hopkins, said a key reason for the event was an increased number of calls from people in their member organisations saying, 'I worry that I'm not doing the right thing, that I might hurt someone's feelings'.

"We thought that if you feel strongly enough to pick up the phone and ask for help, it is important that we help you grow your understanding of the realities your employees from these important communities face, and how you can best help them feel included and valued in your organisation."

One of two guest speakers at the event was Fahima Saeid, who arrived in New Zealand as a refugee in 2001 from Kabul via Pakistan. She and her husband were both medical doctors, had a good income, a comfortable life and a lot to give back. "It is obligatory for Muslim people, if they have more than enough to cover their families' living costs, to give extra to people who are in a less fortunate situation," she said.

Advertisement

As war broke out in Afghanistan, Saeid and her husband fled with their three children and two suitcases to neighbouring Pakistan where, after a year, they were told they would be going to New Zealand - a country they had barely heard of.

"We had no choice. Imagine if someone said, 'pack your bags and go to this country to live'. We had survivor guilt - we left our family and people who needed our help. But the hardest thing of my life was finding out that after seven years of study and 10 years as a doctor, my qualification was not recognised in New Zealand. I went through an identity crisis - I didn't know who I was any more. However, I was lucky enough to find good people who guided me in changing the pathway I was so passionate about." Saeid retrained as a counsellor and has worked with RASNZ since 2006 as an advocate counsellor and a family services coordinator. She regained her identity by helping other people with a refugee background and following her belief in giving back.

General courtesy rules when dealing with people from different cultures, said Saeid, treat people as you want to be treated and if you're not sure what to do, just ask them. Specifically when interacting with the Muslim culture though, she said it's helpful to remember when greeting strangers that personal contact with the same gender is OK, but across genders is a no-go zone. In the case of a handshake, Saeid says the golden rule is to let the woman offer her hand first if she wants a handshake but, if she doesn't, keep a safe distance. "It's also important to be aware that Muslims don't drink alcohol and they usually eat halal meat."

Saeid explained that the five pillars of Islam are belief, prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage, but it is important to understand that people who follow Islam are not a homogeneous group.

"How they apply Islam into their life depends on their ethnic background and education. They can be as liberal or as restricted as they want."

Something for employers to be sensitive to is the Muslim ritual of praying five times a day. Saeid says this may impact their workday, "but probably only 5-10 minutes at lunchtime and in the early afternoon. Employers should also be aware that Muslims will have nothing to eat or drink at work during their fasting month each year."

Saeid runs a women's group for former refugees and says the challenges faced in the first few years are leaving loved ones behind, financial difficulties, being in an unfamiliar environment and not having the language skills to ask for information. Five to 10 years after arriving in New Zealand, the challenges have changed.

"Women want to learn an advanced level of English so they can work and contribute to the economy," said Saeid.

Advertisement

Saeid says it helps to remember that former refugees are just ordinary people who have gone through extraordinary circumstances.

"And all of us, if we work together, can make a difference."