Ola is an asset engineer, football coach, and community creator. As a friend, she is always the person bringing people together, organising dinners, board game nights, and hikes. We love her big heart for community and belonging, and for her capacity to help people around her feel seen and accepted.
She has spoken openly about her journey with depression and anxiety, giving voice to the innumerable people around us who live with mental illness. As a Palestinian-Kiwi, her lived experiences bring a rare, stark grittiness and transparency to the meaning of belonging, and the meaning of being a New Zealander. We feel so privileged to share Ola's powerful story, where she prioritises raw, open honesty. We hope you find it perspective-widening!
Trigger warning: this story deals with topics of self-harm and suicide.
Hola! Straight to the good stuff, right? Problem solving has been my forte and math has been a joy of mine (before applied mathematics though). I was good at it and I was not very good at memorising. Others tried to steer me away from engineering as it was a “man's” job, but I was a rebel and I (in an unhealthy manner) tried to prove people wrong. And that is how my life career was chosen…
In saying that, Engineering Science is probably the most versatile, skill transferring degree I could think of - so thoroughly happy with my decision to study that.
I have worked in a whole lot of different sectors; asset management, transport; I even went into community coordination and started my own side consultancy called Osh Consulting (I only did one job for a really cool start up called The Warren - check him out! I just wanted someone to say Oshhhhh and think of me 😄)
I am currently working for the Auckland Transport Operations Centre (ATOC - A Waka Kotahi, Auckland Transport joint venture) and I’m absolutely loving it. We optimise literally all journeys, from traffic signals to walking and cycling - how cool is that?!
There is a massive room of over 30 televisions (55”) monitoring the transport network 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Anything from crashes, harbour bridge closures, fires, anything that affects the road is managed by ATOC. Heck, they do it all. They even monitor Bus/Train Stations and Town Centres. Working with the police, traffic management and engineers, they literally optimise YOUR journey as soon as you leave the house. They also minimise disruptions, and manage all events, planned and unplanned.
Sadly, the thing that was most disappointing to me was the fact that some of my female superiors would not stand up against sexist remarks and comments. On multiple occasions I had felt that these older generation women had been suppressed to the point where they do not think that change is possible. They allow people to treat them poorly, otherwise they may risk losing a job. It not only saddens me but also becomes a reminder of why I may not succeed in the same way a male might.
I think I have been so wrapped up in where I should be in life that I lost sight of my individual journey.
The expectations of my community is that I should be married with kids. I’m 28… It is my community’s view (although when you hear your whole life, you begin to believe it) that I am far past expiry and my ovaries aren't going to last much longer.
But the reality is that I suffer from depression, anxiety and mood disorders. I do not have the luxury of being in a place mentally to meet someone let alone raise kids. My mind is constantly thinking that I just do not have the mental capacity to meet my parents’ expectations. Which I think is hard for them to fully comprehend.
Life isn't easy. I have times where I fall back into my very deep well. I often hide the fact that I still get suicidal thoughts and cut my wrists when things get really bad… But just the mere fact that I shared that with you may mean that you have made a judgement about me.
There are reasons for every single action someone makes. And as humans we find that hard to accept. Our childhood environments and whether our wants and needs were met encapsulate a lot of how we are as adults. I think we all need to passively learn about the human psyche.
There are reasons for every single action someone makes. And as humans we find that hard to accept. Our childhood environments and whether our wants and needs were met encapsulate a lot of how we are as adults.
I saw a lot of stories of people who have gone through depression and come out the other side. Stories saying how hard it was but how it's all rainbows and daisies. I hated that. I hated being told it was getting better. Because it's tough.
Everyday is tough and if no one’s going to be honest with it then the least I could do is talk about it. So I started to write about my depression on a blog. To help people understand that I am me and that others going through depression are not “crazy”, “unlovable”, “different”, or “scary”.
Instantly I had people message me, thanking me for being a voice of the unheard. It was validating to know I wasn't alone in my thoughts. It was amazing to be heard, to be listened to. It was a different type of acceptance. I was being honest about myself and people did not run away. People wanted to talk, to make change. That was empowering, and it is to this very day. I rarely write on my blog but there are people who will read it years later and relate. And that is enough for me.
I am not ashamed of who I am, but I am afraid that those around me may find it hard to accept me as who I am, love the whole me as I am. I'm far from perfect, but there is no such thing as perfect.
There's something about the natural environment that sends a calming pulse through me. When I am alone in nature, I feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, things I struggle with “in the real world”. I can't really put a word to how it soothes me. The sound of the birds, the sound of waterfalls, the sound of the quiet. The sound of nature.
When my anxiety gets bad - which it does often - I swim. The weather, season, time of day doesn't bother me. If anything, the colder the water the better. It's a business transaction: I jump in, my brain stops. My anxiety is gone. I jump out.
My only explanation on why it works? I am one with nature. And something about cold water resetting something in my body. I feel brand new.
My therapist tells me that normal meditation - the meditation that's become so mainstream - is not for everyone. It's not for over-thinkers - emptying our mind is impossible. Instead, participation meditation is the way to go - being in that environment. Hence, hiking alone and night swims in winter are my forms of meditation.
It is so easy to become so insensitive to this topic. My parents don't talk about it and often I see my dad get frustrated when at protests and events. He made a comment once saying “they are all good at talking but there's never any action”. Which shows his frustration more than his lack of care. He was born in Gaza. His uncles stayed, but his parents left as refugees.
It kind of gives you a feeling of defeat. How do you stop so much violence, how do you become the next Malcom X when you are 16,000 kms away?
Money will help Palestinians stay alive in a time where Zionists are restricting goods coming in and out of these Palestinian areas. But what needs to be done is much bigger. Governments need to condemn what's happening and actually do something. Currently there is only support for Israel. The action will need to be from places of power. But places of power are too political to care about the lives of Palestinians.
The way that the US supports Israel, the way that Zionists look at Palestinians, it is as if we are animals rather than humans, as if our worth is negligible.
To be a part of two cultures should be a blessing, but often feels like being a child of divorced parents and being a burden to both. Unwanted, and unrelated to either.
When I visit relatives, when I speak my mother tongue, I often get called “agnabeye” - a foreigner. For I am a foreigner in all my homes, for to be home itself is a foreign aspect.
I wish to be in a world where I did not already have scripted replies to “where are you really from”, “your English is good”, “your Arabic is not great”. It would be nice to not have to explain the colour of my skin, the size of my features, the accent of my words.
Sadly, I am excited to be called Spanish, to be called South American. I clung to anything that un-Arabed me.
“To un-Arab me” - I had spoken to a psychiatrist about how the last four years have been difficult, often feeling like I am stuck in a well. Her response was that no one had been able to “un-Arab” me, saying that my depression comes from my childhood, and my childhood comes from the way I was raised and my culture. I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but later on, I thought that it was rather rude of her to basically say that being raised white is the only way to not be depressed. It made me contemplate the many years of therapy I have had, and the multiple therapists who have tried to whitewash me.
[...] I thought that it was rather rude of her to basically say that being raised white is the only way to not be depressed. It made me contemplate the many years of therapy I have had, and the multiple therapists who have tried to whitewash me.
I often envy those who are able to belong. To be able to explore their ancestry, their roots. I have uncles who I have never met, relatives in different worlds. But I never hear about the wars my parents have endured. I have not been able to immerse myself in a culture that has travelled through the fingers of thousands before me.
One of my vivid memories from childhood was in year 6, I would have been 9 or 10 years old. We had to get into partners and I said I wanted to be with my friend, to which my teacher replied to me with “No, you should go back to your own country.”
Where was that though? Palestine wasn’t my country - I had never been there. Kuwait (my place of birth) was not either, we weren't seen as Kuwaitis, we were outsiders there too. Where did he want me to go?
I wish I had fuzzy moments. Proud moments to be Palestinian-kiwi, instead there are existential crises, confusion and lack of belonging.
Individually, we can learn and educate ourselves and those around us. There is a lot of fake news on the internet so it’s important to understand the truth.
Share knowledge. Read. Educate yourself. Ignoring is worse than ignorance, as ignoring takes effort. Don’t ignore the videos, the pain, the uncomfortable feelings. The simplest things in this world is to listen to stories and to share stories. I genuinely believe that.
Even as a Palestinian, I find it hard to find ways to support Palestine, so I started making earrings and selling them and giving profits to @qawafilnz, an organisation who donates money straight to people on the ground in Gaza. All those involved are volunteers and no one takes a cut.
Sports is probably where a lot of stereotypes are still well rooted in the community. Football is seen as a man’s sport, and you can even see from a young age that the little boys have been encouraged much more than the girls.
I coach the Under 8’s. A range of 30 or more kids aged 4 to 9 years old, mostly boys. I have 3 girls in my team. THREE.
I can tell you now, I do not teach football as much as I teach belonging. Teaching how to share, to be kind to one another, and to celebrate even when we don't win. They are foundations that are incredibly important. The first thing I ask when I see my children is how they are, how school was - something I have learnt through coaching courses which have stuck with me.
I can tell you now, I do not teach football as much as I teach belonging. Teaching how to share, to be kind to one another, and to celebrate even when we don’t win.
When I was younger I played netball for 8 years, that was the girls’ sport, and my brothers played football. It's what we learn at a young age that shapes our views and capabilities at a later age and sports is a lot about confidence.
Representation is huge. It's amazing how big of an impact us as individuals can make.
I also manage the men's Under 23 premier league and I find it similar in that you care for them, the same as caring for the Under 8’s. It’s different but also the same. At the end of the day, a lot of us just need to be heard, validated and supported.
Playing in the Women’s first team at Manukau United is awesome. Our coach is hilarious and there's a different type of belonging that comes with the immersion of a team of women. I'm surrounded by such strong wāhine. It's an environment where it is easy to bond into whānau.
I believe that about all the people I have met through South Auckland Football. They are whānau. I had a friend who I have only known for less than a year through football, who came to me while I was having a panic attack and cleaned my self-inflicted wounds.
If that doesn't show how supporting and loving the people I met at football are, I don't know what does.
What do you think makes a good role model? Who have been some of your biggest mentors and role models?
Genuineness, someone who is true to themselves and is accepting of all those around them.
For me, I found that I will quickly idolise or turn people who I look up to into these perfect humans, which is so far from reality. So instead I do not have specific role models, but mentors who I will learn from constantly and go to for advice. People like Elke, Rachel, Javed, Vincent, Maia, Kathy, Rahman, Alan, Tiffany and so many more - everyday people, who have helped me so much during my journey, will constantly be honest to me, and raw about their own journeys.
What are some everyday things that bring you joy?
Children - their sense of play and joy radiates. Football, volunteering, optimising and being creative!
Any recent things you’re learning or pondering about?
Currently learning about the impact of intergenerational trauma - such an interesting concept that has brought so much light into my growth and acceptance.
A book I’m currently reading is How to do the Work by Nicole LePera.
And finally, whose story would you want to read about here?
Where to get help:
1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.
thelowdown.co.nz – or email firstname.lastname@example.org or free text 5626
Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825