This interview is with a wonderful, wonderful woman in a dear friend, Kat Eghdamian. She is an Iranian-Kurdish New Zealander and former child refugee. Kat has 6 degrees (which she is a bit embarrassed about) and works as Lead Advisor for Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner. Kat tells many stories about her country of birth, journey to Aotearoa, her parents and her work with migrant exploitation and modern slavery. We end on chatting about Love is Blind and delicious Persian food. Enjoy.
Elina: Hi, Kat. I wanted to comment firstly, on your beautifully arranged bookshelf behind you that's arranged by colour.
Kat: Thank you for noticing it. This was a hot debate on Instagram. I wanted to organise my bookshelf because I've just moved home. A lot of people suggested to organise by colour, which I've never done before. So I thought okay, I'll do that. And then it was really contested. People coming out from the woodwork, people I haven't heard from in a year saying ‘How could you do that? It must be done by topic’ [laughs]. Topic was the biggest counter.
Elina: It looks beautiful… Well Kat, I would love to start by asking you a very broad question. You can take it wherever or whichever way you want. Tell me your story.
Kat: I can never start my story without talking about my birthplace, and then my forced displacement from that birthplace. So I was born in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, and I've never been back to my home, my birth country. So it's interesting when people say, what's your home country? I can talk about my birth country but I don't know if Iran would be my home country. I come from a mixed Turkish Kurdish Iranian heritage.
My mother's side is Kurd, my father's side is Turkish Iranian. And that in itself is part of my origin story in the sense that it was quite uncommon in terms of ethnic marriages, let alone that my parents coming from the Baháʼí community, were also disrupting some social norms around love and marriage, and what process takes place when you meet somebody and you want to get married to that person.
They were at a time when you met someone, the parents said, Yes, and you were to get married, there was no getting to know each other, no having conversations of depth. They disrupted that in the sense that they were very eager to ensure that they got to know each other. So there's the origin of my parents who from the very beginning of their union were very progressive. And then they made the ultimate progressive choice, they chose to leave.
But really, they were impelled to flee the country that was denying them education. By extension, they knew their children would be denied access to education, where there was a climate of fear, where at any point you didn't know if it was going to be your family that was going to be rounded up, or whether it was going to be your children who were going to be bullied at school. In my father's first memory of primary school he is walking into his classroom, and his teacher is introducing him to the class as the ‘dirty Baháʼí that no one should be friends with or talk to’. Again, that's all part of my origin stories. I can't separate all of that.
We fled into the borders of Pakistan. And my father went first, he walked the border. There's a really interesting side story about him being captured. That's maybe for another conversation but what happened in that situation was that he was able to be freed and go and enter Pakistan, and then after a few months, he sent word to us that it was safe. And we were smuggled across the border.
My mother, my older brother and I with a group of others, we primarily went by camelback. And there are countless stories within that journey that make me who I am as well that have been passed down to me because even though I experienced it, you know, at such a young age, I don't have conscious memory of it. It's not an active memory I have, but it nevertheless has obviously formed me to who I am. And then we went to Pakistan and it took a while for us to receive refugee status. There was a very clear processing system, it did take time, almost two years. That's still a significant period, but we're not talking decades of being in limbo or stateless, so to speak. So in that sense, we were privileged and then we are given the option of being restored and resettled to either New Zealand or Canada.
And again, my parents' first question which remains, to this day, quite a prominent measure of how they make decisions was, where's the best place for education? Education is a tool for transformation. And, their answer was, for a young family like yours, New Zealand is probably the best place. When we landed in Auckland Airport, we were greeted by a Baháʼí family. For the ‘authorities’ to identify you as a refugee, you had to carry a UNHCR bag, which had the UN logo on it. And so my mother and I have a photo of us entering the airport, and my mum's just holding this bag. And then we were given the decision of where to live in New Zealand. And again, my parents asked that question, where's the best place for education? And they said for a young family like yours, Dunedin, and not knowing anything about Dunedin they said, great, sounds good. They said, it's got the oldest university there, students study there, a great place for young families to go. You can't get more distinct than going from the Kurdish province in Iran, not very green and then you go to the South Island, and it's rainy and cold and old buildings [laughs]. And that's how we landed here. And how in some ways I now call Aotearoa home. So I guess my home country is Aotearoa. My birth country is Iran.
Elina: As you said, because we have some of the things that we experienced as children, we might not have a direct memory, but they are inside ourselves, they shape everything about us growing up in New Zealand. Did your parents share many stories about their journey? As a child, were you aware of the origin story and stuff?
Kat: Yes, I don't remember when they started sharing the stories, but then there was a period of my life where they stopped sharing the stories. And I don't know if it was an exhaustion that comes with that, constantly retelling and reliving that trauma, but it was very much embedded in my understanding of who I am and who they were and what they did. A lot of it was laced with jokes. My dad's a really good storyteller. And a really good jokester. There is this hilarious story about how they entered this city, this cold city, and my dad just rocks up to the university and demands a meeting with the chancellor and he didn’t know English and says that he wants to become a doctor. And he came from Iran where he didn't even have University qualifications because he wasn't allowed to go to university as a Baháʼí. But the way he tells that story of how the chancellor was saying to him: “But you don't even know English”. And he said: “Don't worry, don't worry, I just don't know a few words.” So there were parts of the stories that I was told that were beautiful and light and just sweet at times. And then of course, there was a lot of sadness, difficulty, a lot of otherness.
Their intention was never to actually resettle in this country for as long as they have. And I think we can just maybe sidetrack a little.
I think this is a real common misconception about migration broadly as a phenomena, but particularly about forced migration or forced displacement. There's this assumption particularly in the West that everyone wants to come and live in the West. “If only we could all live in Australia, New Zealand, the States, Canada, Germany, wherever.” And for the majority of people I've met, in my work, I found over and over again that most people want to have a sense of belonging. They have a sense of wholeness, origin and it doesn't matter how many years go by, it doesn't matter even if that home country doesn't accept you, doesn't want you, doesn't love you. There's still this desire to actually be there.
When my parents left, their thoughts were maybe a couple of years, there was always this idea or this hope that the revolution was going to not last. And they would go back, and they would build a life there. And they would contribute to their society, it was the place they knew the language, they knew the land, they knew the cultural dynamics, they loved their country.
Elina: It’s quite similar if I may reflect to my mom and Kazakhstan, even though there are all these problems and currently, it's actually quite an unstable place because of what's happening in Ukraine and Russia and Kazakhstan itself, there is still that sense of belonging and love, and yearning for that feeling like you don't have to explain your existence. And I guess it's a bit different for my mum as she did have an option to stay and live there but because of the systemic oppressions, she's Russian, she's a single working mom, which is not a great thing to be in Kazakhstan. So for those reasons, she is really happy to be here. But in terms of belonging, her the heart and soul, I think, still yearns for that acceptance.
Kat: Many of us aspire to be where we are, to make the most of where we are, to grow and contribute to a prosperous life. When you said the systemic oppression, it's the conditions around us that might impel us to leave, whether we're forced to leave or impelled to make the choice to live.
So when people say, Oh, but they’re economic migrants, they're not refugees because they're looking for economic opportunities. Well and why is that not okay, but an expat is okay. So it's how we view it in this whole thing about racism and how we view people and their contributions.
Elina: Do you remember what you were like growing up here, when you were 10, 15, the early memories of teenage-hood, when we form our identity a little bit more as people?
I didn't want to be Persian. That is something I strongly remember. I wanted to be white, I wanted to have blonde hair. I wanted to not have hair on my arms, I wanted to be anything but what I was, physically.
I didn't mind so much the food aspect or the cultural stuff, having meetings or gatherings and song but it was mostly a physical thing. I didn't feel like I belonged in that sense, or was, let's be frank, beautiful. I think most teenagers probably felt the same but my measure or my comparison was always to the white blonde girls in my class. And as a result of that I didn't want to speak Persian. I didn't want to speak Farsi. I understand it now. But it's a pity. I definitely have come back to my cultural identity or whatever aspect of that. I think we're very lucky in some ways to be living at a time where there are people having these conversations. We were not having these conversations 20 years ago.
Elina: You have how many… five, six degrees? Obviously you said education was a big priority with your family? What was that journey into those degrees and also choosing to dedicate your working life and life in general, to those issues like migration, new human rights and stuff like that?
To whom much is given, much is asked. I think I am very conscious on a daily basis of my privileges. I have many, and they come from the back of sacrifices. They come from the literal sweat, blood and tears of my ancestors. And from the vision, insurance, and capacity of my parents, I'm not interested in just enjoying them. Comfort is not my goal.
Pleasure is not my goal. So I think that it's obviously been part of my upbringing, and we can't exclude that, I've been raised with a very socially conscious, family environment, religious environment, just community generally. That's naturally impacted the kinds of places I've been in my life, the kinds of conversations I've participated in, and the content that I've been exposed to whether it's written content, visual, or whatever. I've been conditioned to believe this. I acknowledge that. But there's also just something that I think is part of my character, my personality, how I'm wired. I do think we've all been gifted a personality, and the personality doesn't change, I think our character can change and be nurtured. We can educate ourselves and all that there's something about our personalities. It's like, when you're born, they say, that child's a little bit feisty, or whatever. It's sweet actually to see what is unique about your personality. I do think I have this sensitive, serious inclination to life. It was always the Civil Rights Movement, or it was the Holocaust, there was always something that I was really concerned about.
It was just part of my makeup, which is the ultimate question: are we nurtured to be this way? Or do we have a nature to be this way? And I think it's both in my particular life story.
Elina: I wonder quite often about that. When you work in the space of changing hearts and minds of people or trying to build societal collective empathy. It's something that I feel like during this work, whether it's through my paid 9 to 5, whether it's through my volunteering, it feels so core to me, that it's almost like I didn't choose that. Like choice was never a thing and it's just something that I grew up into. Probably partly, observing my mom being very giving and dedicating her life to a very hard life and giving. And when I go to spaces where there are people who are currently choosing not to support or help and being more in their comfort, and maybe enjoying the privilege more than using the privilege, how do we change that? Or how do we influence that in others?
Kat: I used to be more judgmental than I am now.
I think I've come to truly believe everyone's doing the best that they can, even if I don't agree with someone's behaviour or whatever. That's also an indication that they're doing the best that they can with what they know and what they've been given. So I try to meet everyone with compassion, love, and a belief that they really are on this path and where they are right now.
Whatever they are doing, its the best that they can be doing right now. So how to make that better? Well, first, I think we all do better when we know better. So maybe we don't know better. Like my daughter comes home from school and says: “So and so was mean to me today, or I saw them push someone on the playground or whatever. Why would they do that?” There's a core question. So the human experience, why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people like all these sorts of things, and we can go meta and philosophical, which I love to do. But with her, I make it very simple. I hope it's simple enough for her to kind of grasp. I just say maybe they just don't know. Maybe they weren't told about kindness, seen kindness, felt kindness. I say no one's actually a bad person, that person is not a bad child, they maybe made a bad choice. Maybe they're having a hard time. Maybe they can do better when they know better. So maybe you can tell them, maybe you can show them, maybe you can help them. And then sometimes it's a situation where they don't know better, you just pull yourself out of that situation. It's not your problem to solve. Right? When it's their time to learn that lesson, if they're open to learning it, they'll learn it. And if not, I don't also want to have that burden of - you have to go and rescue everybody and be everybody's education. Because I definitely had that growing up.
Yeah, just starting from that core of honestly, essentially, everyone is actually just a good person. Some people are just good people having a really hard time.
Elina: It's something that I've been learning a little bit through during the storytelling work with Storyo and now with #PassTheMic, of being less judgmental. Using storytelling as a tool to show better or show different rather than going into spaces and saying: I'm going to educate you because who I am to educate anyone? It’s more to say, here's a different perspective and then hoping that something changes. Whether someone reads a book, watches a video or there's a DE&I talk by a leader or whatever it is, none of those things will individually help change their perspective. But maybe all those things together will make a little change and then, as you said, once they know better, maybe they will do better.
So, what do you do now? Tell me more about your Human Rights Commission work.
Kat: My 9 to 5 is working at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, which is a national human rights institution. And I am currently working as the lead advisor to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner. The Commission currently has four Commissioners, and they have different portfolios of work: the Race Relations Commissioner, the Disability Rights Commissioner, the Chief Commissioner and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner. My Commissioner also holds portfolios for business and human rights, women's rights, Pacific rights, and children's rights.
When I first started at the Commission, the natural fit for me was to go into the race relations team because the race relations team also works on religion, minorities, refugees and immigration, just race unity generally as a theme, but I wanted a bit of a challenge.
I wanted to work with the UN on issues that are not typically linked to human rights. So with business and work, particularly with increasingly capitalist modes of thinking and productivity and organisational culture. We don't necessarily bring human rights language and standards into that.
I also like the challenge of working with naysayers. Because when you're talking about race unity, for example, by and large, you'll have people who are already ‘converted’ to the cause. They have bought into the idea that it's not a good thing to be racist, whether they do it right or effectively. It's definitely complex, and we've got so much work to do on it and I tip my hat off to my colleagues who are striving really hard to work on incredibly difficult issues. But when it comes to business, you don't typically have these kinds of conversations in those environments. I was curious to know how do we have meaningful conversations, in spaces and with people who may not be thinking within some framework, and yet nevertheless, absolutely need it. Because where there are people there are human rights, right? So it's obvious on a very elementary level and it makes sense. But when you actually see it in practice, the business communities are largely left out of these conversations, because it's something for civil society to do.
Elina: Could you give an example, and maybe an issue or a theme in your work related to the business community and human rights?
Kat: There are so many, but the one of the big bodies of work that I'm working on is related to migrant exploitation and modern slavery. So again, this is one of those topics where you say,
Wait, why are we looking at that in Aotearoa? We don't have modern day slavery here? So one, there's a wake up call around the prevalence and the presence of forms of slavery. But then there's the question of accountability. Due diligence, who's responsible for identifying and responding to and eliminating this?
Checking the presence of modern slavery across all supply chains? And across all operations? Can you exclude business from that? No, you can't, right? But typically it would be considered the purview of the state and civil society to advocate or to educate. But actually, what is it about the forms and the practices and the operations as well as the assumptions underlying business in this country? That is, what makes it right for human rights violations to take place, including where people are brought to this country, or we bring products into this country that have links to slavery, and there's so much of it.
Elina: My last assignment for my degree in human rights was on modern slavery and migrant rights in employment. I wrote specifically about seasonal workers and seasonal work exploitation in New Zealand. It was incredibly sad and I only touched the tip of the iceberg there…
Kat, how do you balance that comfort and pleasure? You're doing those things that I can see bring so much discomfort, and dare I say, in a good way. Yet, being exposed to those things every day in your working life and your life in general, how do you find peace or groundedness for yourself?
Kat: These are big questions [laughs]. When I say I don't seek comfort and pleasure, I don't mean that I don't have comfort. I have that, I definitely do and and again, that's part of my privilege. I think people exaggerate what comfort has to look like or what self care looks like. The fact that I have a home - I have to go into that space of realising my relative privilege because that is comfort. But what I'm saying is I don't necessarily need to go get a massage every day in order to feel like I've released tension. Or whatever other self care routines are like out there in the wellness industry that are distracting people. I watch my Netflix shows and I was talking to you earlier before we started recording about learning to balance my weekends, and I am gonna go and have lunch with my parents and celebrate their 41 year wedding anniversary, and these are comforts and pleasures and absolutely necessary, because life is not black and white.
I will cry if I need to cry if the day's been difficult. I pray every day. I'm trying to learn to meditate. So I have daily practices, I guess you could say or some might call it spiritual practices. And I'm very conscious of being active in my community and in my neighbourhood, making friends, having conversations, not taking yourself so seriously. Just simple things like going to the playground and talking to people and not just looking at my phone. These are also important because you connect to reality and to hearts. And that's also part of comfort, I think because you ground yourself into a space as well,
I don't need to serve something that is always outside. We can also serve our neighbourhoods and the families and the communities and the people and the friends that we meet. I think it's a struggle to do that in this world. I think imbalances are the mode of operation, extremes are the mode of operation, but actually finding balance, iIf we can do that then it's every powerful.
Elina: And it's a daily thing that I contemplate about finding balance, but also maybe not being too tough on oneself for not finding the balance as well, because I feel like it's a lifelong journey. People assume that because I'm spending a lot of time in my work, in my studies, in my hobbies, talking about issues, or, working in this kind of space that my whole life must be like this. And I say, No, I watch so much crap Netflix TV shows, and go for walks and talk shit with friends [laughs].
Kat: I watched Love is Blind, season two, because I need that stuff. Sometimes my husband laughs because I definitely am also the put-on-your-independent-film-with-subtitles-and-cry-through-it person. Where there's a 20 minute monologue of someone in black and white just talking about an experience they had. With Love is Blind, he'll just laugh and say how are you watching this junk? And I love it. We need the distraction but there's also some reality there. I also meta-analyse Love Is Blind. I could write you an essay on Love Is Blind.
Elina: I feel like I can talk to you for hours. And I have so many more questions. But I will probably just ask one more before we start closing off. When it comes to racism, ethnic relations, belonging, all of those things, there are so many levers that we can use including policy, the way we design and build things, the practices, there's so many things. What levers do you personally employ or think are important?
Kat: As if that’s a simple question [laughs]. Pull any lever that is available to you, because we all have different circles of influence. And one of the risks that I've seen in the world of change and social advancement is that there's a lot of delegating, and a lot of people thinking it's the work of others. For example, very simplistically, people think it's the work of or the it's the role of the government to do X, and then they'll just sit and do nothing themselves. They say why isn't my manager doing Y? It's very easy to point fingers and to just criticise. What they call keyboard activism: people just sitting there saying - I don't like how you did that. So I'm gonna write this really nasty comment and just criticise, but they're not doing anything themselves.
So the first thing is just everyone has a lever, they can push, and it can be everything from a conversation. Let's not underestimate the power of our words and our thoughts and our just ourselves. Let's just start at that very fundamental level of the individual. All of those typical things, be the change you want to see in the world, we laugh at it, we roll our eyes at it, we think it's too simplistic, but it's deeply powerful.
Reflection is so powerful, how many of us are just taking an hour to reflect? Then there's the level of the community. So are we building community? Are you part of communities? Are we having coffee? Are we meeting our neighbours? Are we creating spaces where conversations can take place, where new activities can be formed, that are constructive, that are unified? Or are we all in our little individual silos or family units? And maybe if we're being very polite, nod our head to the person that we're walking past and then there's the level of the institutions and institutional levers are multiple and varied.
I don’t diminish the fact that we need to write submissions to Parliament on the need for a modern slave react? Do I think it's important? Yes. Do I think that's the single lever that will eliminate the presence of modern slavery across all supply chains and operations in this country? No. Because I know that if there is a business owner, who has not had any reflection in their life, who has not been a part of any community has no sense of their purpose of existence, and think that the purpose of their existence is to accumulate as much wealth as they can, by all means necessary, even if it means the exploitation of the people around them. No amount of laws is going to do that.
Think of how many laws have been passed to try and help curtail tax fraud? Or can it mitigate the severity of some of them? Yes, but it's not the only lever but we can push if you work in government, pull the levers on government, if you work in civil society, pull the levers in civil society, but if you don't work in government, or civil society that doesn't mean there's no levers that you can pull.
Elina: I love that. It's almost like okay, I don't have to think too big. Because when I think too big, I can also feel disempowered. I feel overwhelmed, I feel I can point fingers easily because it's too big of a problem. But when I think, okay, here in my little space, in my little circle of influence, what can I do?
We start from the position that every single person is noble. Every single person has limitless capacity to contribute to the world, then every single person can be an active protagonist of social change, that includes the stay at home mother, who is educating, nurturing, loving, re-healing that new generation of children that are coming into this world who are going to live and, and contribute all the way to whatever you want to say in terms of institutional hierarchy.
And everybody in between. If you start, for example, in your home, and you create a space in that home, where love takes place, where meaningful conversations are had, where there's a spirit of devotion, it doesn't matter what your religious, spiritual, non-religious, non-spiritual background is, there is something at the core of all people that wants to connect, that wants to transcend, that wants to have meaning, so it might be in song, it might be in prayer, it might be in reading something, it might be in creating, might be an art, it might be in whatever and you create, bring that into the home. The form and the function of that home changes.
Elina: Oh, Kat. I love that! Let's go into some quick fire questions to end our amazing conversation. I’m just so grateful for all your wisdom, laughter, just you… Now tell me what's your favourite dish?
Kat: Persian food for sure. That and Italian food on par with each other? Persian food, Persian Kebab Zereshk Polo Ba Morgh, which is a chicken and rice dish with barberries.
Elina: Where can we eat that in Auckland?
Kat: Come over? [laughs] I think there's a couple of Persian restaurants. I don't know if they do them as well, you have got to find your local Persian restaurant.
Elina: If you were the main character in the movie or a TV show existing or made up, what would it be? What would it be about?
Kat: That would be my worst nightmare [laughs]. I do not want to be the main character of anything. I think that's my genuine answer. But I would love for my parents story to become a film. I think that their life story is incredible. I had never thought of that before. But sure, why not? There we go.
Elina: If you were to propose one change, one policy to organisations or New Zealand Parliament and it would go through, don't worry about the logistics, what would it be?
Kat: Yeah, I'm one of those rare people that doesn't believe that policies is the answer to everything.
I've said this before that I think that our policies and practices towards displaced people is a litmus test for how we view humanity and how we view our own society and our own, whatever our own people means, but New Zealand could do a lot better with its refugee policies. I think we do comparatively quite well to many other countries in the world. If we're seeking relative distinction, then fine, maybe we can close our books and just move on with our life but we have the opportunity to be exemplars, and to to make some really brave choices.
And so I would probably select something in that space.
Elina: When you think of yourself, Kat, what makes you feel like a badass?
Kat: I would love to feel that more regularly. I feel like I need you as my cheerleader by the side, you've got a lot of energy and motivation. But yeah… At times when I'm ‘just being a mum’. We underestimate motherhood and the contributions that mothers make to society. And its when I have a mother moment. Like this morning, my daughter watched a new show called Hello Jack, The Kindness Show. It was about if you love someone, maybe you can make something for them. And afterwards was said, I'm going to make a little book for you. And she wrote ‘I love you’ on it, with a rainbow. Just these little seemingly unimportant things. And those moments, I think, this is great, what else could I possibly want?
Elina: That's so beautiful. Kat, thank you so much. I am constantly in admiration of you, I feel like you are such a wonderful, grounded, passionate, humble human, who watches Love Is Blind and still shares profound insights into how we change society.
Kat: Thank you. Thank you for doing this. It's very, very exciting and so needed, it's really needed. Appreciate you.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded these conversations from the comfort of our homes, you know, the global pandemic at all. So we really hope you felt that cosy listening to your friends over the phone kind of vibe. If you haven't already, check out our remaining series with 14 other incredible conversations. Share, Subscribe, send to someone who might benefit from either feeling seen or you know or learning more about ethnic voices in Aotearoa. This wonderful podcast has been brought to you by collaboration of Belong Aotearoa, Storyo, Planet FM and Sport Waitakere. With thanks to our funder, the Auckland Council Regional Development Fund. Follow us on Instagram @passthemic.aotearoa and @story.co And until next time.