Ola Shahin is a Palestinian-Kiwi engineer and a community football coach at Manukau United Football Club with an inspiring journey. She has spoken openly about her journey with depression and anxiety, giving voice to so many people who live with mental illness. Ola's lived experiences bring a rare, stark grittiness and transparency to the meaning of belonging, of being a New Zealander. You are in for such a beautiful storytelling experience about mental health, a sense of belonging, football life and cake!
Content warning: This article covers the topic of suicide.
Elina: It's such a pleasure to have you here. Let's start with your story. Where did you grow up, what shaped you and how did it all begin for Ola?
Ola: I was born in Kuwait and migrated over to New Zealand when I was five. We moved here because of the Civil War at the time, and my parents just wanted to better our lives. We came to New Zealand in 1998. And all I remember growing up, I was the only ethnic person around. There were Samoans and Māori but I still felt like I was a bit different. I grew up in a very white area, in West Auckland. I have three brothers and two sisters, so I grew up in a really big family. We were all in a small, three bedroom house. And at the time, my dad couldn't practice medicine, even though he had worked for 20 years in a Kuwait hospital, it wasn't recognised that he had a proper degree. So he had to re-study and he was working as a taxi driver for a lot of the time. We weren't living off a great salary between the eight of us and my mom stayed at home and took care of us.
I wasn’t too close to my siblings growing up. I remembered being a little bit bullied by them [laughs]. I was in between the three boys. And I was the little tomboy that wanted to do all the boys stuff but wasn't really included by my brothers because I was a girl.
Elina: Do you remember much of that stage of moving and being here and the first few years?
Ola: I just remember starting school. In Kuwait school usually starts at six years old. And my parents had thought I'd have a year of kindy before I actually started school. When we got here, they were in shock that I had to go straight into school. I had zero English and all I remember is me crying, pouring my eyes out and heading into the door. Crying so much that it would convince my older brother to come talk to me in Arabic, because I could understand Arabic, but I couldn't understand a single word of English. It was quite daunting from memory.
Elina: What actually working comes up for me is something that I haven't thought about much because I moved here when I was 16. I moved on my own, but I could understand and already speak a bit of English. My mom and my two brothers followed me to New Zealand 6 years after I moved here. My little brother was four and he went to kindy and knew zero English. And there were a few kids there of different ethnicities who also couldn't speak English. And it seems that those weeks or months, for some from the outside, could be quite a traumatic experience. Not being able to speak the language. How do you feel it affected you?
Ola: Looking back on it, talking about it to my therapist these days, I didn't feel like I fit in, and it was the start of not fitting in and not belonging anywhere. It starts with something so simple. Not even being able to communicate with someone, you no longer belong. Being a different colour, you no longer belong. And that was the start of it.
Elina: Did you have any people or moments, if you remember from childhood or teenagehood that made you feel like you belong?
Ola: I had friends that were like me. I had a best friend who was also Palestinian and she had moved to New Zealand early on. I remember that when I was with her, I just felt like I belonged. And everything was fine because she knew how things were because she was like me. The sports field is where I also felt like I belonged. I played Kiwi tag, I played netball. I did sprinting. When I was out and doing stuff, I felt like I belonged. But day to day, I wouldn't say that I felt like I belonged.
Elina: As a teenager or a kid, what did you imagine yourself being or doing in this new place?
Ola: That's a really difficult question because I don't think I ever had a set thing of what I wanted to be. I never wanted to be a doctor or engineer but I do remember switching and thinking, I want to be a baker and then I want to be a chef. My parents said, no, no, you go get a degree first and then you can be whatever you want.
Elina: So how did you end up studying engineering? Was it a parental influence?
Ola: It's interesting because I liked maths and physics and that's what I was good at. When you put maths and physics together, it was engineering. I don't have a good study ethic and I remember my parents saying, don't do it, because you are just going to pull out after the first year. You're not going to enjoy it, it's not going to be for you. I remember thinking, you know what, I'm going to prove them wrong, I can do this. And I went into engineering and after the first year, I didn't like it [laughs]. But I said I'm not giving up on this now, I stuck with it and I graduated after four years. Now I'm working in it but it's been a bit of a process. When people talk about their careers, and how they've always known that they want to be something, all I know is that I just wanted to prove my parents wrong [laughs]. I always feel like I've never gotten to their high expectations. For me, it always was, I'm going to prove to them that I can do this, and I can be better than what they expect. They would comment here and there about what they wanted me to be and what they wanted to see me as, to be a good Muslim, to be successful and to be modest.
Elina: Belonging is this big subject and it can extend to belonging in your country, belonging in your family, belonging in a degree. Did you feel a sense of belonging when you were doing your degree? Knowing how gendered engineering at university is, how did you feel doing a degree?
Ola: I felt like I belonged there in terms of my ethnicity and who I was and the people around me but I never felt like I belonged in terms of my smartness and my intelligence. Which is quite interesting, because looking back on it now, I felt like I was always the dumbest and I couldn't do things the right way. But I can look at it now and think, actually, I did have intelligence, I just didn't study as hard and I didn't enjoy it as much as I could have. Like you said, there's all these different types of belongings whether it's in your family or in your degree, and I didn't feel like I belonged. I always felt that I wasn't smart enough and it just came down to imposter syndrome. I didn't even know what imposter syndrome was till recently when someone explained it to me. I thought, wow, I've been living like this my whole life. It was quite a few different things that shaped me into who I am and I'm still being shaped. It's not just one part of your life that makes you who you are and then you stay there. I think you're constantly changing.
Elina: I recently went to this event with friends and we discussed what are some of the things that shaped us into the adults that we are today. For me, what stood out was growing up in Kazakhstan, and then moving to Western country and feeling that I had to change my surname to be more accepted or fit in. Also my badass, single mom who raised us, the domestic violence that she experienced and that we experienced second-hand. There are so many big and small things that shape us into who we are, and those are some of the big things that came up for me. My question to you is what would be some of the things that kind of stood out for you, when you think about what made you into the adult that you are today?
Ola: I would say like my ethnicity shaped me a lot. I can relate to that not wanting to be ethnic. I used to dye my hair and I still dye my hair, but not for the same reasons that I used to. Because I hated looking Arab. I just didn't want people to know that I was Arab. And that says whole lot, wanting to be white. And society wanting us to look a certain way, that shaped me quite a lot. My depression would have shaped me more than I would like to think or give it credit for. I spent years holding hands with depression and it becoming my life. Nature has shaped me, I didn't realise how much I needed nature in my life. It's made me into a different person, calmed me down and helped me breathe. Sports shaped me, or not really sport itself, but the people around it and the community it holds. It's easy to put it into little boxes of this has shaped me and this has shaped me. But at the same time, there are little things that happen while you are just living life that actually can change your life. You can hear a quote a million times and it won't change you. But you can hear it in a different circumstance and it can completely change your mind and change your living. I think it's just those moments.
Another thins for me is that my mental health gets misdiagnosed all the time. I got diagnosed with borderline personality disorder about six years ago and I've seen therapists since then that have told me no, you don't have it. It brings up this moment with my therapist, who was telling me that she thinks I have ADHD. I've not been screened for or diagnosed yet but I was talking to a friend about it and he was saying, how amazing is it to have ADHD? There are so many great things that come with ADHD. It's not a negative mental health issue. There are things that come out of it that make you who you are. That's stuck with me and changed my perspective on mental health. We always talk about how this person has bipolar and this person has borderline and we have all these negative connotations that come with it and negative outlook on someone. If I hear someone's got bipolar, I would always think, Oh, my God! That was an instant reaction. It's so, so horrible, because at the end of the day, someone that has bipolar actually has so many beautiful features that come with bipolar.
Elina: That's a beautiful reframe. I like it because you're right, most of the time, when it comes to mental health, or neurodiversity it's very much about all the challenges that people have, which is obviously true in many cases, but I have many, many friends who have different types of neurodiversity, that really love parts of it. They find it very personal and unique to their characters. Doing another series on Storyo at the moment on Autism, we were talking about how, when it comes to neurodiversity, or mental health, Pākehā Western narratives are severely over represented. I was wondering whether it's partly visibility, partly classic Westernisation of everything, but also partly how much we talk about it in the ethnic communities?
Ola: Yeah, it's the lack of conversation in ethnic communities to be fair. When I first started having depression, I told one person and I couldn't tell my parents. I remember, I made a comment to my parents and their first reaction was “you're just not religious enough”. It wasn't until I went to end my life in the bush that they took it seriously and started having those conversations. But even now, it's been, what, five, six years, they will still say comments that are very harmful in regards to mental health. Or attack my mental health in a way that I don't think they know that they're doing. I don't think they understand mental health, they never really grew up with it or the importance of it. When I started writing my blog, I had a lot of ethnic people coming out, saying, I feel the same way, or I've got the same condition and I've not talked to anyone about it. It's just a suppression that comes with being an ethnic family, that makes it difficult to open up about this stuff. I will now say, I'm gonna go to my therapist and they understand I go see a therapist and they're okay with that. They understand I need to, but before that, I would have never even said the word therapist at home.
Elina: What did you write about on your blog?
Ola: I wrote about the day that I went to go end my life and how things changed while I was in the bush and how things that changed after I came out of the bush. It didn't become any easier, just providing a kind of perspective on mental health from someone that was going through it day to day, rather than the whole narrative of ‘I had mental health and now I'm fine, things are great.’ This whole narrative of you can go through mental health and come out the other side, absolutely unscathed. I hated hearing those stories. And so I wanted to put out a perspective of someone that was going through it day to day. It was difficult but it was also something I felt I needed to do. It doesn't matter what happened on the outside. It doesn't matter what happened a few weeks before and what you think is wrong with me. This is what's wrong with me and this is my story. That's why I started it so I was completely open about it being me.
Elina: You said people reached out to you who are also in ethnic communities and said that they really resonated. Have you had any older folks, maybe from the older generation have a reaction in any way?
Ola: No. No, I've not. They were all pretty much my age. I've had comments, even my dad commented on one of my blog posts, which was weird because we'd never talked about it, but he'd read my blog posts, and it was a way for me to communicate about my mental health to my parents without having to do it face to face.
Elina: We find interesting ways and tools, ay? I definitely can see the conditioning that our parents and their parents have gone through. From one perspective I do hope that maybe it is just generational, maybe now that we talk more about it, it is going to be okay with our generation and generations younger than us. But is it really? From what you've seen with people reaching out and on your blog? Do you have the same hope?
Ola: That's a really difficult one because generational trauma is real. It's 100% there and a lot of ethnic communities will have generational trauma from their parents who may have fled war. If I find a way to stop generational trauma, then my kids and their kids will not have to go through that. It's a chain that needs to be stopped but it doesn't mean that the generations before us are forgotten. There's a lot of work that needs to be done there. I don’t agree with suppressing emotions and not talking about what they've gone through. My parents have never told me about the war. My sister told me that there was one night, she tucked in her Barbies and they were pretty much gonna die. They went through a lot, but they don't speak about it. There is a need to speak out and have more representation of older generations because it's never too late. I don't think they got to live their life to their fullest and I feel like that they deserve more.
Elina: It's really sad and really tough. It's also crappy that a lot of us, or this generation, have to do the work of healing and stopping the trauma. It can be quite damaging to not have the support of parents that you love so much. But at the same time I understand what you're saying with your family going through war. My mom hasn't gone through it, but her parents have. And when she was an adult, a bunch of things happened and I feel angry that someone that I love had to go through all of this. And unfortunately, maybe their coping mechanisms are a bit different. There's this ‘toughen up’ attitude for many, many, reasons. Mental health wasn't even a thing. We can have empathy, and also figure out how we enable the work to happen not just for us but for everyone. Like you said, there are people that feel they were robbed of the life that they could have had. For example, let's take a university class, a school class or a work environment and the people that work there. Consider the person sitting next to them, their colleague, and their colleagues’ parents who've gone to war. That's something that they have to carry with them everywhere they go. That intergenerational trauma is present. What has your experience been like in terms of workplaces or environments where those things are not acknowledged?
Ola: I've been in workplaces that have 100% supported mental health. But I've also been in workplaces that have said that they support mental health and they have really not done well. I'd start working for companies and I‘d ask them about their mental health in the interview and they'd say yeah, we're all about it. We're fine with you going to therapy. And then going into that and starting that work and they would make comments that they're not trained in mental health. And it is just as important as first aid health. It wasn't until I joined ATOC a year ago, where they had mental health trainees and they would have a therapist come in each week, and just sit down and be available for anyone to talk to her or him. And they'd also walk around the office to see if there was anyone that looked like they were uncomfortable. To have them actually understand that it is a thing, and that they need to do something about it. So ATOC is Auckland Transport Operations Centre, it's a joint venture between Waka Kotahi, and Auckland Transport. And so they've got this room of around 30 screens showing the Auckland network and they also look at all the state highways. They make sure that your journey is optimised. But they also deal with crashes, unplanned events and planned events. So they witnessed a lot of things that would affect their mental health and 20 years ago, I don't think anything would have been done.
Elina: Obviously there is a higher exposure to those things there but still, it's incredible to hear that there was support like that available to people. Why don't we do that for everyone? Everywhere?
Ola: Exactly. Exactly. Well, John Kerwin has a programme which I heard about this morning, called Mighty. They're all about teaching resilience to primary school kids. It's a mental health programme that they're trying to include into the curriculum so that it's compulsory for schools to teach mental health, coping strategies and resilience at a primary school level. I thought that was amazing. The whole time I was listening to it I thought, yes, this is exactly what you need. I wish I had coping strategies when I was in high school. There's so much bullying in high school, or even intermediate and racism and things that I had to deal with.
Elina: Yeah. And then we grow up into adults that don't know how to cope with this and propagate it onto our children. Ola, I'd love to talk to you about your football life!
Ola: I play at Manukau United Football Club, I also coach the under-age group and I manage the under 23 men's team. I take photos for the club through social media, and do the merch too. I designed the shirt that had: Anti-racism Football Club on the back of it, kind of like the whole anti social social club. The reason that I do so much for the club and the reason that I'm so embedded in it is because of what they stand for, and the values that come out of the club.
My therapist always tells me that I'm dating my football club [laughs]: “Whenever anything happens, you are always loyal to your football club”. And I am! I love the diversity, that inclusion, the ability to feel like I belong around so many different people from different places. I guess it's mainly because they're in a South Auckland area, where things are a bit tough. And also you know not everyone can afford to be a part of a football club, and the club is inclusive of that too! And it’s also what the club does for others. We run a tournament every year for Palestine. And that comes back to like them aligning a lot with me: I'm Palestinian, and so the football club has a lot of Palestinians. It’s also a lot about social media presence and sharing of stories, which is important!
Elina: I think I read somewhere you talked about gender and religion inclusive sport initiatives?
Ola: Yeah, it is as simple as uniforms for Muslim women and being accommodating of what people wear and how you wear it. But also even just being aware of Ramadan and fasting and holding events in accordance to that, not doing events that might exclude Muslims during Ramadan. Or trying to find a means to cater for all religions.
Elina: It's wonderful to hear your experiences with your club! I am so heartened by that feeling of inclusion and belonging that you found and now radiating more to others too! To close us off, I wanted to ask you some quick fire questions and first one is: what is your favourite dish?
Ola: Cake! 100% [laughs]. I love cake banana with cream cheese icing. I used to bake as a side hustle. And I just made a lot of banana cake with cream cheese icing! And my favourite Palestinian food is dolma: it's grape wine leaves, boiled and then stuffed with rice. You actually can't buy good dolma anywhere. I'll have to invite you over you'll have to come over for dinner one day.
Elina: That’s what every single person I interviewed said [laughs]. If you could be the main character in the movie or TV show? What would it be?
Ola: I would make up a movie and call it “How to struggle”. It would be a big comedy of my life.
Elina: If you could propose one policy to New Zealand Parliament or workplaces, what would it be?
Ola: Free therapy for all people independent of age. Because at the moment, there's a lot of initiatives for younger people but the older generations need it just as much.
Elina: Love it. Love it. And the last question is what makes you feel like a badass?
Ola: Can I say something really nerdy? My Excel spreadsheets! I have an Excel spreadsheet done for every holiday or work things. I'm like, Yeah, I did that. I'm cool [laughs].
Elina: Amazing. I loved talking to you so much. It's like, you know what I said in the beginning, when you talk to your friend on your phone or landline? Yeah, that’s how it felt…
Ola: I felt like that, too. I really enjoyed it. I actually was a bit nervous at the start. But I loved not having our cameras on, I did feel like I was on the phone with a teenage high school friend, telling them all my secrets and venting a little bit [laughs]. And I love what you've done. To put together all these people's stories and actually have representation out there. I think that's amazing. And I think it's awesome what you're doing and yeah, love your work.
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.
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