A Rotary Alumni Feature Story
 
You don’t expect to hear someone like Rez Gardi say their experience at a Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) programme was challenging.  However, she admits RYLA challenges you to get outside of your comfort zone and she had no idea what to expect, walking in to a room full of strangers on the first day.
 
“Comfort zone” isn’t a phrase used when describing Rez’s early life.  Her family is Kurdish and her parents’ families had settled in Iran to escape persecution.  They became political activists, fighting for Kurdish rights and independence and as tensions escalated in Iran they fled, with their two children, to Pakistan.  The family spent the next nine years in the refugee camp of Quetta, where Rez was born and were finally resettled in New Zealand in 1998.
Rez said, “I asked myself, how could I contribute to human rights?  How could I help my people?”.  Her answer saw her become New Zealand’s first Kurdish female lawyer and the 2017 Young New Zealander of the Year.  She has worked at the United Nations Office in Nairobi as a human rights intern and represented New Zealand at the Global Refugee Youth Consultations and annual United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva last June.  As the founder of charitable organisation, Empower, she is giving a voice to her people and refugee youth.  Empower was established to empower, educate, and enable refugee and other marginalised youth in New Zealand address the underrepresentation of refugee youth in higher education.  Participants are encouraged to pursue meaningful paths of their choice and contribute to their communities. 
 
At RYLA, she relished being surrounded by other young leaders from diverse walks of life and experiences, ages and ideas.  “There were people I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet or come across in everyday life,” she said “and the kind of relationships I formed at RYLA would take years in the outside world”
She also enjoyed the exposure to workshops, practical skills and the variety of mentors, which gave her an environment to help her formalise and test some ideas for forming Empower.
 
This, says Rez, is what Rotary can offer young leaders like herself.  For young people who are motivated to make a difference but don’t know how to do that or need support.  Rotary provides a network of like-minded people who can provide guidance and opportunities to develop leadership potential.
 
“To be part of a global, known organisation is empowering.  Building connections beyond age, cultural and social boundaries.”
 
In return, Rez believes she offers a different perspective on the work Rotary does; that of a Kurdish female and former refugee.  “I bring a different culture and understanding and an opportunity to build a relationship with and be involved in the work I am doing to change the future for refugees”, she said.