This conversation is with Maria Khaydar. She is a self-described “capitalist girl-boss by day and anarchist by night”. Maria currently works in the tech industry and is actively involved in amplifying ethnic voices and advocating for refugee and asylum seeker rights. We talk about her Syrian-Azeri-Russian identity and expectations that come with that mix. We discuss the way we police ourselves as women of colour and reject the notion of being a trail-blazer.
Elina: Maria, I'm very excited. I feel like we've met throughout lots of Storyo events and chatted on the internet a lot, but haven't spoken one-on-one, so I'm very curious about your background. Maybe we can start there?
Maria: I am super pumped and super nervous as well, so my voice can crack at the most awkward moments, please don't mind that. I guess in terms of my background, to make the story as short as possible - I am originally from Russia, but actually don't really identify as Russian because I’m mixed: I identify as Arab. I was born in Russia, but my entire family are all migrants. I think the only person who was actually born in Russia was my mum, but she has Azeri heritage, which is from Azerbaijan. My family travelled quite a lot. My dad is from Syria, so in his family line, I was the first one to be born outside.
Elina: So you grew up in Russia? Tell me a bit more about your childhood.
Maria: I grew up in Russia. It was pretty interesting because I went to public school for the most part of my life. Public schools in Russia are not the same as public schools in New Zealand; you get a lot of intense moments [laughs]. I don't think I had anyone in a class who looked like me: you get very pale skin, blonde hair people. Then I went to the private school for two last years of high school, and because I got the diploma that allowed you to apply for English speaking countries, I ended up in New Zealand. It was like my ticket out of Russia and I was very grateful for that.
Elina: When I was younger, my mum always wanted to leave Kazakhstan so I came to New Zealand when I was 16. Was that the same story with you and your family? Did they want you to study and live abroad?
Maria: Actually, no. My parents, they're pretty Asian, so they're pretty conservative. And they always wanted me to stay in Russia and go to this fancy university in Moscow where the kids of diplomats go. And I guess going to private high school, you are surrounded by kids who were dreaming to go overseas. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that's a possibility. Really? I can do that as well?’ I guess when I started applying, I had a bit of a existential crisis and I applied to different countries. And the reason I applied to New Zealand is because the application fee was $0. So me being in Russia, every application costs you $30USD, which is pretty big in Russian rubles, and I’m like, ‘Okay, well, I can't pay for another application, so I'm just gonna apply to free universities.’ And then New Zealand accepted me!
Elina: What was the aspiration? I mean, I'm just thinking back when I was 16, I was a classic, ‘leave the country to go somewhere else, to experience a better culture, to experience better opportunities’ - you know, the classic migrant story. I wanted to go overseas, study and bring my family here, even though it felt like a insurmountable task. Did you have any long term plans about New Zealand? And what did you want to do here?
Maria: Yeah, interesting question. I think when you move overseas, you’re kind of forced to plan out your life more than an average person your age. In terms of big picture, I just wanted to get, I guess, out of Russia and experience something different, and that was my big plan. I never thought I'd stay, because I thought, ‘Oh, culture shock. Like, maybe I can't handle it’. I am pretty, you know, pretty Russian in some ways [laughs].
Elina: Tell me more about that?
Maria: Just the way, I guess, I behave - like, I’m pretty straightforward. I'm pretty loud. I don't sugarcoat things, so when those things build up, you kind of feel alienated from something as different as a Kiwi culture. But here I am, four years later, kind of thriving. And also, when I moved, I didn't have any job goals at all. I just wanted to have some money to enjoy myself in New Zealand. I guess at a time when I was getting my degree, I also hoped it would get me into that tech startup environment and I do work for quite a big startup, Shopify. Just kindly promoting it on the podcast [laughs].
Elina: If I were to read your form that you submitted for the podcast, you said ‘I’m a capitalistic girl boss by day and anarchist by night. I have also coined the term anarchy under the table, which means doing something that actually matters during your working hours, but your management can't know about it.’ Tell me more about it?
Maria: Oh, man, I hope no one from my team is listening right now, because I do not know how to face them during our team times [laughs]. But yes, anarchy under the table. That's my pride and joy. Long story short, it is doing something that matters, but your management can't know. But actually, my management is pretty open minded and I'm already involved in diversity and belonging at Shopify, so it's been a pretty cool journey.
Sometimes I think you have to be quite subtle about things that matter, because people can get defensive, and some topics are very sensitive. And that's something that I had to learn because, you know, me being my Russian self, I'm like, ‘Let’s go forward, oh, diversity! Belonging! Let’s do it!’ but some people are not ready for the conversation. And that's okay. You just have to, you know, prepare them. Kind of like how you season the chicken before you fry it.
Elina: I love that! You season the chicken before you fry it [laughs]. A big, big part of this work here and why we wanted to do Pass The Mic is to talk about what it means to be an ethnic person in New Zealand. And I find the term ethnic person quite interesting because ‘ethnic person’ can mean a gazillion different things, right? Then there is the term of people of colour. Do you have a personal preference of how you would call yourself? What do you think about those terms in general?
Maria: I find it quite challenging to talk about the topic. I assume positive in people, but sometimes I think when they ask about my ethnicity or where I belong, the sole reason why they're asking is to put me in some sort of a box so they can make a judgement about what sort of person I am and how to approach me. And that's fine, because it's kind of like… not a defence mechanism, but it is the mechanism of how humans operate. But I find it so confrontational because I am forced to tell them my entire ancestry and life story only for them to make a judgement about what I say. If someone was to address me about that question, I think I would prefer the term woman of colour, because… I don't know. Ethnic person is kind of like calling someone exotic. It doesn't sit right with me and I don't know why. So I think I would prefer person of colour or woman of colour or, you know, a migrant or a person from refugee background, something like that. Yeah.
Elina: I find that everyone has their own personal preferences and reasons behind those words and t's just a good discussion to have with people. If we talk about self, like sense of self, and sense of identity - what do you think it means for you personally? Do you think about your sense of identity often? And how did it change depending on the context in New Zealand? What do you think it means to be a Kiwi or to be a person, a woman of colour?
Maria: To address the first question, I think about it all the time. There's not a single day that passes by without me thinking about it. And recently, I actually came to the conclusion that, ‘Can I just not identify as anything?’ It sounds very depressing, but I think when you’re mixed or biracial or have multiple ethnicities that don't really match each other, you just kind of end up being in the limbo. And it's very important to talk about it, because people want to belong, and they want to associate with certain groups of people because you want to feel safe. But for me, I found it easier to not be part of those groups at all. And I was just thinking, ‘Can I, like, not be anything? Can I be just a human? Can I be a woman of colour, but without having to explain my entire heritage to people?’
I haven’t figured out what it means to be Kiwi yet. I think I have certain ideas on how to integrate into the culture better, but I haven't found an answer on, like, ‘How do you become a Kiwi? What is it that, you know, sets you from migrant to migrant Kiwi?’ I don't know if there is an answer to that. But what it means to be a person of colour is people look at you, and you have to make sure that you're not too confrontational so people don't label you as aggressive or as something stereotypically Russian or Arab. And yeah, I found that being a person of colour, you have to think five steps ahead. You’re kind of like playing chess with people all the time, except you're constantly losing, but you’re kind of like making sure that there is a chance to win for you. So you have to be thinking ahead all the time. And it's very exhausting, but that's something all of us have to do.
Just imagine we talk about integration and assimilation and how every single person would tell you, ‘Oh, my God, like your English is so good.’ Or ‘Oh, I can't even hear your accent’ or, ‘Oh, you’re integrated like you've been in New Zealand for a couple of years.’ But I think what people don't understand is that integration is not, like, a step that you overcome. It's a constant work. And actually, for me, personally - I don't want to speak on behalf of all migrants everywhere - but for me, integration actually depends on the day that I'm having and my mood. Because sometimes I wake up, and I just can't deal with shit anymore. And I'm like, ’Okay, I'm going to be a bit Russian today. I'm just going to tell people how I feel.’ And then other days, important meetings are coming up, and I sit down with my partner and I have this talk. I'm like, ‘Oh, do I sound appropriate?’ He reads over my emails if I'm angry. And it's always work in progress. It's a process. And you have to make sure that, you know, you wake up every morning and you have to set this mindset that ‘Okay, am I a Kiwi or am I a migrant today?’ And it's a scale.
Elina: Yeah. And it's interesting - I wonder how much of it is also being a woman of colour? Like, you know, not coming off as aggressive and all the stuff you just said. I also get my partner to read over my stuff sometimes, when I'm trying to say something assertive or establish a boundary, and it's funny because for me, I feel like I'm quite a confident person and I'm not really afraid of public speaking or whatever, yet the number of times I've asked my partner to read over an email and be like, ‘Am I coming off as angry?’ And I wonder how many times, like, men do that? At least for me, I've never been asked to read over a guy’s email and check if they’re sounding angry, you know?
Maria: Being a woman of colour is you constantly doubting yourself and it's like a vicious cycle: ‘Do I sound okay? Am I being too assertive? Like, are they gonna label me as aggressive?’ All of that, and there is no escape from it, because you're never gonna understand English 100%, because this language doesn't make any freaking sense [laughs]. Although, like, what does it even mean to be aggressive?
Elina: I want to talk to you about your work with Authenticity Aotearoa a little bit. I feel like there's a bit of a theme maybe around the whole ethnic, person of colour, identity and New Zealand integration in your work. What are the some of the main things that you find you gravitate towards, or are more passionate about in this area?
Maria: Yeah, I definitely enjoy my work around Authenticity Aotearoa because what we do is we provide space to have mental health conversations, to have conversations around just wellbeing of women of colour. And we have Zoom calls, events, we met up just before Christmas. And I definitely enjoy that because I think there's demand to discuss it because there's so many young women of colour that don't have access to mental health care or anything. And sometimes you just want to have a friend to have a chat with. So yeah, I enjoy that mahi and I want to be involved more, when the time allows.
Elina: When it comes to the notion of a trailblazer, or a successful migrant, there is this notion of success whether it’s about professional achievements and status, or in a field of advocacy and contribution. And I find that both can be quite heavy for me, especially the latter. How do you feel about that notion of being a successful representative of something? Or a “successful” advocate?
Maria: Oh, man, big questions! I hate the notion of success that we have in our communities of becoming, you know, a successful migrant. I actually find it quite hard because if you think about it, if someone asked you, ‘Oh, what is like some of the well known activists that you know?’ You can only probably name five people off the top of your head. So there's always this competing process of becoming well known, like you have to have followers and engagement online, you have to be making infographics every day. But also, not everything that you live through has to be news or has to be spoken about. Sometimes, like what you say just has to be taken as like your living experience. And I find it quite hard to communicate because I'm quite active on Instagram. And some things that I post are just interactions with like other activists or advocates, and they don't have to “make it” in any way. I don't have to become popular or successful. I don't have to have articles written about me because my life is still my life and it doesn't make it any less valid if it's not talked about, you know what I mean?
Elina: Before we dive into this more, I wanted to ask you a bit more about the Syrian-Russian identity. How would you describe it? What does it mean to you? Because I feel like I can relate to the maybe a little bit of the Russian part, but I would love to hear about actually both. What does it mean for you to be Syrian, to be Russian?
Maria: Yeah, I don't know. I’m gonna give like a straight-up honest to God answer - I have no idea. There's so much going on with my family, it's going to take me 200 years to unpack all of the intergenerational trauma we went through at different times. But I think… What do I think? I think, hold on, let me gather my thoughts. Man, identity scrambles my brains every time. So when it comes to Syrian identity, being Arab somehow closely relates to being Muslim. And I think in the New Zealand community, after speaking to a lot of Syrian folks here, being Muslim somehow closely relates to being Arab, because if you're religious, if you wear religious clothing like hijab, if you just follow what it means to be Muslim, what it means to be good Muslim, it somehow justifies you being Arab more than if you’re just non-religious Arab, or if you, for example, don't speak the language or don't pray. And for me, it's hard because I also don't speak Arabic, because my dad never taught me the language. I found myself trying to justify me being Arab a bit too much. So I'm taking a step back now, because I actually don't have to prove myself to be an Arab, if that makes sense.
And then, the Russian part comes in, which actually isn't Russian, it's Azeri from Azerbaijan. And what happened is we are ethnically Persian, like, we are from Iran, and there is a lot of bloody history, so I don't wanna go into that. But then there's like this whole mix of identities, so I find myself questioning, ‘Who do I identify as? Who am I?’ And that's looping back to, you know, ‘Can I just not be anything?’ And with Russian, it's so messy as well. We just have so much history, and not good history, as well. And then half of the Russians are indigenous people that we don't really recognise, and we just think of them as, like… I don't know what we think of them. People think a lot of stupid things. But yeah, it's a whole mix. So I don't know. I don't know who I am when it comes to my identity. But I'd love to get that figured out. But can we even figure that out? You know, like, that's an important question. Can we?
Elina: Maybe it's just, yeah, a journey. When I was living in Kazakhstan, I’d strongly identify as Russian because my mum is Russian and my dad is Kazakh but I grew up with my mum and I didn't speak Kazakh. So even though I look very Kazakh, I’d say I’m Russian. But then coming here, I think I'm more strongly identifying with the identity of Kazakh purely because of, I see how identity and culture is perceived here, and I almost want to, like, counteract that with saying that, ‘No, I am from Kazakhstan. I am Kazakh and Russian and this is what it means. I don’t agree with a lot of things from my culture and I think we could do things better. But here I am, showing up as me in New Zealand. My surname, for example, is Ashimbayeva, which is a long surname. If people actually read it, they can pronounce it properly, but they’re just afraid to try. And I always wanted to change my surname. Always. My mum has a different surname now, she changed it back after the divorce. But I recently when I became a citizen here and had the opportunity to change my surname, I didn’t. It's a long and hard ethnic surname and screw it! People should try and pronounce it [laughs]. Here I’m not Western enough but back home I’m too Western now, so yeah, it’s a constant journey of figuring myself out.
Maria: Actually, my last name is Arabic, but it got translated into Russian, then it got translated into English. So if you say it in English, it doesn't even sound Arabic anymore. And in Russia, people are pretty anti-semitic, not just anti Jewish but like the whole Arab Penunsula. And so people used to ask me if I'm Jewish, and then I’d say, ‘No, I'm Arab,’ and then they're like, ‘Oh, my goodness, okay, that's even worse.’ Like, that's the vibe I got from them. And I also found myself in that rabbit hole of wanting to change my name, change my last name, change my identity. Completely rewrite it. But at the end of the day, it is my last name, and I'm the first one to be born outside of Syria, so I might as well keep something that belongs to me.
I want to dive into our last segment, which is probably quite big on its own and we’ve kind of touched on it already, it's about changing systems in New Zealand. What isn't working? What needs to be better? What kind of leadership do we need? When it comes to migrants, refugees, ethnic people of colour, like, what are some of the things that you want to see be better?
Oh, man, touching on some big topics today, eh? Sunday morning [laughs]. I have a few ideas. But I'm by no means a politician or, like, a policymaker that can actually think all of that through. I think as just a single individual coming to another country, what would have benefited me when I was here first, in the first couple of years, is just having mental health support. And I know it's like a buzzword now, mental health, mental issues, mental illnesses, people say it everywhere. But we don't give enough context when we say what we mean. So what I would have loved to see more is having mental health professionals who speak my language, first of all, because I'm not a native English speaker, and if you can communicate in your native language, you can communicate your issues and problems better, because you can just find the right words.
When I first came here, I would say I'm depressed, but I don't have depression, I'm not clinically diagnosed with depression. And I say ‘depressed’ when I mean I'm sad, which is not the same thing. So finding the right words in English is very hard, so you can’t communicate what you feel. And if I had that mental health professional who spoke my language, who spoke Russian, I think it would have actually changed the course of my first few years, because I could have communicated my issues better, and communication is key. And also, I think, overall, you want to see people in leadership positions, who look like you or who speak your language. I think pathways for migrants to support their own communities, because how the hell does a white person or, you know, a New Zealander understand what we're going through? They probably don't. It doesn't solve any problems. I think what solves the problems is dismantling the entire system that's built on, on a certain white supremacy. So we need to dismantle those systems and build them anew. But I guess, like history does repeat itself. So for now, to address the problems, we need to start somewhere…
I had a conversation with someone recently, and they said ‘I'm not a white supremacist, I don't believe in far right movement,’ but I think what people need to talk a bit more about is that white supremacy is not a far right ideology, it's actually just a system that we benefit from. Whether you are pale skinned, whether you're white passing - whatever that means - whether you speak English, which is the most popular language because of colonialism. It's the system that we benefit from. And that is what white supremacy is. It's not some random ideology that a few people believe in.
And you know, even being a migrant, people don't realise that in the back of our heads and our brains, we always have so many things running, like ‘how do I get residency? How do I get citizenship? How am I going to pay my medical bills?’ We’re always one paycheck away from falling into that unrecoverable debt. If you go to dental, for example, you're always one treatment away from not recovering at all. And then also it's important remember that we always think about health issues, we always think about our family back home, we always think about all those things that New Zealanders don't have to think, so, yeah, it builds up. It's like, my brain is always running at 20%, because my other 80% is trying to figure out how to survive.
These are such important topics Maria and uh, I can so relate. I hope people can really understand that there are a lot of things happening and we are all different, not everyone will be worried about their families back home. But a lot of people are and having that empathy and curiosity to find out more and support people more is what we need. I wanted to jump to quickfire questions at the end that are just a bit more fun, and they're like, kind of short questions. The first one is, what is your favourite dish?
Oh, I gotta go with Russian salad, Olivie. Yes, you already knew that. But just for the wider audience, Russian salad, it is a fancy version of potato salad. So if you ever want to try it out, I'll cook it for you.
Yeah. Best salad ever. I agree [laughs]. If you could be the main character in a movie or a TV show, what would it look like?
Okay, this is very funny, I was thinking about that the other day and I realised I want to be a character in The Bee Movie. Not because I love bees, but because people don't get the point of the movie. This movie is amazing. It takes the piss out of capitalism and if you all watched it as a kid, you absolutely have to rewatch it after you turn 20, because there's so much more going on, and I want to be that bee that figures out how to escape capitalism and live its bee life.
If you could propose one policy to New Zealand Parliament or one policy to your current workplace or any other workplace, like, what would it be about?
Oh, so many things, so many things. Okay, can we can we drop the fee for residency application? It’s just the first thing that came to mind. $1,500. Guys, that's like buying a new car. Can we please make it free? We are already here, we’re paying taxes. Please drop the fee. Thank you. And refund me as well, please!
And last question, Maria, what makes you feel like a badass? What makes you feel empowered?
A lot of things, but one of the recent ones - I built a garden from scratch with my partner. So every morning we water it, because gardens, they are thirsty, so it makes me feel empowered. I'm growing something. It's like having a child but you can actually, like, eat it. Okay, that sounds very bad. Hold on. I'm growing vegetables, right? And I'm eating them, so you're getting something from your efforts. Just scratch the children part, I’m sorry [laughs]!
Thank you so much, Maria. That was so… like, honestly really freaking awesome for a Sunday morning. And I just loved all your… Yeah, I could relate so hard, like, even though I feel like we have probably quite a lot of different experiences and stuff and pathways in life, just there's so much commonalities in how we feel and how we move through life and some of the narratives that society imposes sometimes that we struggle with.
Yeah, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It was an absolutely pleasant experience. It's my first podcast, so I was quite nervous. And I think also when you listen to podcasts, there's always pressure to give out like some sort of lessons. But I hope everyone who does hear my story just takes away something that they might relate to. You don't necessarily have to learn anything. Probably, actually, don't learn from me. I know nothing. So yeah, I hope this was enjoyable for whoever made it that far in the recording.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded this 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.