Former refugee uses storytelling to break stereotypes

Source: 1News

Millad Rashidi was only 13 years old when he came to New Zealand as a refugee from Afghanistan.

Millad Rashidi and Krishan Reddy, both 17 from Auckland's Ormiston Senior College, are launching their new book Ali's First Day at School on Wednesday to help break down stereotypes about refugees.

Now 17, he has enlisted the help of his friends from Auckland’s Ormiston Senior College to write, illustrate and self-publish a children’s book about a refugee's first day at school.

The students, made up of immigrants and refugees, started the social enterprise Atawhai . They plan to donate the proceeds of their sales towards school supplies for refugee children. 

Titled Ali's First Day at School, Mr Rashidi said the book aimed to raise awareness and understanding of a refugee’s experiences. 

"Differences could be the main reason why refugees and migrants...[face] a high rate of bullying and discrimination," he said.

"One of the highlights in the story is when Ali misunderstands 'footy' as football (soccer). He goes out to play, is thrown a rugby ball, stares at it blankly and gets tackled by a rugby player."

Mr Rashidi said targeting the story at children was deliberate. During an early launch of the book, he asked primary-aged students what they knew of refugees.

"Most of the kids, they said [it was] people new to the country," Mr Rashidi said. "One kid put her hand up. She said refugees are the people that come to the country that are uninvited.

"The thing is, that’s not her perspective. She probably heard it from her parents, media, news or wherever she heard it from."

He said his group based the story on their real experiences to make "a real difference".

Born in Iran and raised in Afghanistan, Mr Rashidi was forcibly displaced as a 10-year-old. His family moved to Pakistan, and he found himself having to work to support his family instead of going to school. He first settled in Auckland in 2015.

Being one of the only Middle Eastern kids at his previous school, he said there were times he felt he didn't belong.

"Stories are the best way to connect with people. Because, once, we did a project with some refugees [in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre]. When we started telling our stories, other people started connecting with us as well."

Krishan Reddy, who worked with Mr Rashidi, also drew on his experiences as a migrant from Fiji for the book.

"When you first come to New Zealand, obviously there's a lot of challenges… I found [Millad] and then my other group members. It really helped to get me settled in,” the 17-year-old said.

"Our main struggle was getting the book out. But, now it's finally out. It's a great achievement for us and we're all proud of it."

Atawhai was formed through the Young Enterprise Scheme . It allowed the students to earn NCEA credits through an entrepreneurial project.

Mentor and assistant principal at Ormiston Senior College Mark Snoad said he teased out the idea for a book from an early brainstorming session with the students.

"It readily became apparent that Millad's own experiences would make a great story," he said. "My belief is that students will invest their time and energy in something they care about."

The book has already gained traction at several primary schools.

Ormiston Primary School’s associate leader of learning Fran Mes said students were making connections between their family’s stories and the characters’ experiences.

"Our students really enjoy reading the book when they visit the library and love the fact they have met the students who wrote it," Ms Mes said.

"It's really important for our library collection to reflect the community in different ways."