If the Christchurch mosque massacres have done anything other than leave all New Zealanders grief stricken they have taught us Muslims are as cross-cultural as it's possible to get. Take Mohabat Khan Malak and his wife Emire Khan-Malak, he's from Uganda, she is Māori, a Rotorua couple brought together by their shared Muslim faith. In this Our People special they talk about that faith and the extraordinary pathways their lives have taken:

Jinja Uganda is the source of the Nile, a town on the shores of Lake Victoria established as a British administration centre in 1901.

For Mohabat Khan Malak born there 58 years later that British link counts for nothing on the world stage. A refugee from the tyranny of the Idi Amin regime, he remains a stateless person, stripped of the right to hold a passport.

So how did Rotorua come to be his home? Thereby hangs a tale of endurance and determination for a life better than he'd known since he was 12 when his family were expelled from Uganda simply because they were of Indian descent. Along with other Asians, Amin decreed them persona non grata.


Mohabat's forebears went to Uganda from what's now Pakistan but because pre-partition in 1947 it was still India per se meant the Khan Malak's fell into Amin's unwanted category, ordered to quit the country. That, like Amin, they were Muslim didn't make a blind bit of difference.

The family pitched up in Spain.

"We were supposed to go to an Italian Second World War army camp but because my father had to wind up his automotive business we'd passed the 90-day deadline to leave Uganda it had filled up before we got there.

"We were in the overflow that went to Spain, staying in a vacant hotel about an hour from Barcelona that was turned into a transit camp. It was a huge uprooting, we were away from people who spoke our language, knew our culture, there was no employment. Us kids went to school in the hotel's basement learning English and Spanish, I had learnt English in Uganda.

"When summer came and they needed the hotel for visitors we were transferred to Madrid before being shipped off to the United Arab Emirates [UAE].

"Because it isn't part of the United Nations convention for refuges, they refused to grant us citizenship. While it was a place where we able to follow our Muslim faith, our freedom to travel was restricted, we couldn't attend the hajj [pilgrimage] to Mecca."

Mohabat was sent to an Arabic school in Sharjah, passing British O and A level exams.

He wanted out of the UAE and was formulating a cunning plan to escape into Iran strapped to a microlight when regulations changed allowing refugees travel documents.


By then he was working at the British Consulate in Dubai, initially as a security guard before promotion to consulate clerk.

"One of my responsibilities was interpreting visa regulations, I was dealing with Commonwealth visas, from my lessons in Uganda I knew about New Zealand, I had an aunt who came here to get away from Amin, she didn't have children, I thought I could join her and look after her. By then I had realised if I stayed in the UAE, got married, had children I'd be stuck there."

He arrived in Auckland in 2001.

"My application for refugee status was turned down, I wrote to the Minister of Immigration, was still turned down, they couldn't deport me but to this day I am still a stateless person, it's totally ridiculous. Things got so bad I wrote to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK, they said you have to go to the UN, I got nowhere, am still in stalemate."

He kept body and soul together as a landscape gardener. "That's not official, something else that's totally ridiculous."

His mosque remained his place of refuge, he wanted to marry, settle down, unquestionably his wife would be a fellow Muslim.

He clicked on a website introducing Muslims to Muslims, saw the then Emily Bidois's profile, she was the mother of four grown children.

They met, married in 2015, their mosque ceremony incorporated English and te reo Māori.

Wanting somewhere cheaper than Auckland to start their married life they went to Te Kuiti and lasted two months.

"It was very cold, lonely, we came to Rotorua because our daughter was here, we moved into a whare in Mangakakahi."

With their marriage, Emire's children immediately became Mohabat's children, her native tongue his too.

"I didn't have a work permit. I couldn't work for other people so I decided to open my own business Mahaba Halal Meats on Ranolf St, a butchery that followed Islamic law."

A takeaway was planned but Mohabat became ill with pneumonia and was no longer fit enough to work fulltime.

"We are in the process of selling the business, now I help my wife here [Toi Ohomai], look after the moko, worship at the Muslim headquarters on Tarewa Rd.

"It means a lot to me as a Muslim that I am in a different country, but still have the freedom to pray to Allah.

"Mosques are not only places to pray, they are where we come together, a place of refuge, what happened in Christchurch is truly terrible, our people are a peaceful people.

"The way New Zealanders have responded is beautiful, I've lived here nearly 20 years and New Zealanders have always been kind to me. It is an honour to be married to a Māori, Māori people are like my people, very down to earth and whānau oriented."


With her head totally covered in black edged with a slim band of white, her full-length outfit also black, Emire Khan-Malak could be taken for a nun of the old school.

She's not, she's a committed Muslim, has been for 11 years and rejoices in her conversion to the faith that's given her Allah as the God she worships.

She considers it a privilege that she's one of this country's few Māori women to have embraced the religion, viewing it as making her life complete.

As president of Toi Ohomai's student association, Student Pulse, covering Rotorua, Tauranga, Whakatāne, Taupo and Tokoroa campuses Emire (previously Emily) is a well-known figure in the region and beyond.

That she dresses differently to most she meets no longer raises eyebrows as it once did.

To her, her Muslim brothers and sisters, it signifies they are no longer seen as oddities by most New Zealanders.

Their reaction to the terrible events of March 15 has set the seal on that.

Emire is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support there has been for the families of those whose lives were taken and the mass shooting's wounded. Her faith holds her strong. "I need to be strong for those who grieve."

Emire's conversion to Islam did not come entirely unscripted.

She'd tried out other religious denominations looking for one that fulfilled her the most. She was raised in the Haahi Ratana church, as a child she attended Sunday School, later taught classes at Te Puke's Apostolic Church, attended the town's Every Girls' Rally, organised by the Brethren church, flirted with Mormonism, "I enjoyed what I tried but there was always a gap there."

"Then a Muslim friend introduced me to the Muslim way of thought, of life, it wiped out all my negativity, I am now a peaceful person, not scared of dying, I used to be really scared of that, had bad nightmares, now I know I will die wrapped in Allah's arms."

She compares Islam with her Māori heritage and culture which she continues to embrace, one in tandem with the other.

"There are many similarities, a lot of Christian people challenged me on why I had changed religions, Māori people simply accepted it."

Regardless of her beliefs, Emire remains every inch a child of the Bay of Plenty.

Born and educated in Te Puke, plus a year at Mt Maunganui College, she worked briefly in the Mount's library but was soon married and a mother.

She was pregnant with her second child when her marriage broke up, she returned to live with her mother in Te Puke.

"When my mother died I felt I'd lost my mentor."

Emire's had another relationship and two more children and is now a kuia (grandmother).

To help with her conversion to the Muslim way she went to Dunedin for Shahada, instruction in the creed incorporating the Five Pillars of Wisdom.

"I converted there, came home, took part in my first Ramadan [month of daylight to dusk fasting] I was working in a kiwifruit packhouse, at first it was hard with people eating around me, a Christian friend there helped and supported me."

The conversation turns to her hijab (headscarf). "With mine my face is open, my husband has given me permission to wear it that way because of my age group, I never go out in public without it."

There has been the occasional snide jibe sparked, she believes, more by ignorance than prejudice. "The police are very good, they keep our Muslim women safe on the streets."

Emire has achieved the aspiration of all Muslims to join the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, the holiest of holy cities for Muslims. Doctrine decrees at least one visit is made in a lifetime if at all possible. She is "beyond privileged" she has complied.

Emire's 2013 visit was sponsored by an Auckland Saudi-Mulsim group.

"When I learnt I was to go I cried, I was so thankful, so blessed to be chosen, it was my first time out of my home country."

She was in a party of 50 New Zealanders, Australians, Fijians and Americans.

"Allah blessed me with beautiful people to be with and to financially support me, I was humbled, thankful."

Once in Mecca, she dressed in a full burqa as Muslim custom stipulates. "Only my eyes were showing, nothing else, you quickly get used to it."

The conditions she stayed in were far from primitive. "Mostly motels, but we even had a few nights in the King's palace."

The pilgrimage includes a walk between two holy mountains, Safa and Marwah, not once but seven times.

Although using a stick, she'd had a bad reaction to the pre-visit inoculations and her feet swelled, Emire made it unaided each time. "I said to myself 'nothing is impossible, Allah will be with me'."

She met Mohabat two years afer her hajj. "One of the prayers I made at Mecca was that I would find a Muslim husband, I also prayed there for peace and harmony to unite the world so that all peoples would become one people."

Shortly after the Khan Malak's Rotorua arrival Emire joined the Youth Centre's admin team, moving on 21 months later to gain her level 4 diploma in business and financial literacy at the Quantum Institute.

Finishing her 18 papers well ahead of deadline, her tutor instructed her to move on to Waiariki (Toi Ohomai's predecessor). She has three papers to go before gaining her bachelors degree in applied business management. Her Student Pulse presidency is into its second year. "I have never had any problems with my religion in gaining positions like this, but I'm sad I'm the only Muslim woman student president in New Zealand, I pray that will change soon. Allah has blessed me."


Born: Jinja, Uganda, 1959
Education: Jinja until 12, various transit camp schools, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Family: Wife Emire, four shared children, four moko. Mother and brother in US, two sisters in Dubai, one in Sweden, "I haven't seen her since we left Uganda in 1972". Another sister in Kenya.
Interests: "Whānau, practising my Islamic faith, technical engineering. I do a lot of reading about that and have my workbench at home with a 100-year-old lathe machine. I'd like to learn to fly a plane, go fishing, bring kai home for my family's table."
On New Zealand: "It is a beautiful country, my home, that's why it's ridiculous I am classed as a stateless refugee, I have talked to our MPs about that, but have still got nowhere."
On his life: "It has been an adventure, I have found calm in New Zealand."
Personal philosophy: "Faith in God, do good deeds, do a job right, don't mess around."


Born: Te Puke, 1958
Education: Te Puke Primary, Intermediate and High Schools, Mt Maunganui College, Quantum Institute, Waiariki Polytech-Toi Ohomai
Family: Husband Mohabat Khan Malak, four adult children, four mokopuna
Iwi affiliations: Te Arawa, Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Waitaha Te Puke, Tuhourangi, Mataatua, Taranaki
Interests: Family, Islam. Is a member of the Islamic Women's Council "I love to crochet, knit and relax with people, I love being with people." Member several Māori land trusts. "I am a busy lady."
On Rotorua: "I have climbed a hill and come home, that's because of my affiliations. It's beautiful, I just love it here."
On her life: "I've had a lot of challenges and am always open to new ones."
Personal philosophy: "Me aroha ki te tangata – show love to everyone so we can unite as one people"


"We pray five times during the day at home and wherever we are at the time, even at work. My husband does go to the Masjid [Mosque] to pray when he is able to go and for me, as a Muslimah it is not compulsory for us to attend the Masjid, but we are still able to go when we can as we do have a women's section at our [Rotorua] Masjid."

- Emire Khan Malak

NOTE: Our People returns to its regular weekly format next month