Against all odds
Guled Mire came to New Zealand as a refugee when he was just six years old. During his high school years he struggled to fit in and was repeatedly told by his teachers that he wouldn’t amount to much and that Universty wasn’t a place for “people like him.” He dropped out at 16 and that could have been the end of his story. Except Guled decided to defy the odds, enrolling and then excelling at University he went to to be awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study his Masters at an Ivy league school in New York. He spoke to Kea about his journey and explained why he’s so determined to give back to the country that took him in.
Guled was born into the height of the Somali Civil War. The fifth of eight children, he was just two years old when his mother decided that Somalia was no place to raise her family and so she packed up and fled to neighbouring Kenya. Unable to leave the only life he knew behind, Guled’s father remained in Somalia, he was later killed when a mortar shell hit their family home.
Guled’s family lived in the refugee camp in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi until he was six years old when they were resettled in Hamilton, New Zealand. For a six year old with little to no grasp of the English language, Guled says landing in Hamilton was quite the culture shock.
“I remember at the time it felt like a big adventure. We arrived in Sept so it was cold but not super cold. The biggest difference was what you could see, the surroundings and the landscape, and of course the change in demographics.”
Guled started primary school where he was able to start picking up the language. He was lucky enough to have an understanding teacher who went out of her way to help the family, especially when seemingly normal things like school camp came across as totally alien.
“I remember when my teacher told us we were going on a camp, she gave me this permission slip to give my mother and it had a list of things on it that we had to pack. I remember going home and handing it to my mother and it had things like a sleeping bag on it. We didn’t know what a sleeping bag was, let alone own one. Eventually the teacher realised that we had no idea what was going on, and walked us through it.”
While Guled has good memories of primary school in New Zealand things got more difficult when he entered High School. After being kicked out of his first high school at 14, he enrolled at another before eventually dropping out altogether at just 16.
“I had a rough time at secondary school, I didn’t fit in, I didn’t have any sort of mentors or teachers who guided me. Teachers told me again and again that University wasn’t for people like me and I wouldn’t amount to much, these were the messages that were relayed to me over and over again. I don’t think the teachers meant well, they would say things like maybe you should go into a trade, which I always found odd as I wasn’t remotely good with my hands.”
After leaving school Guled travelled for a while before he started to find his place. He began reflecting on all the things his mother had given up for his family in order for them to have a new life in New Zealand.
“When you come from a refugee background, your parents have restarted their whole lives just for you. It really motivates you to make the best of this. This was what eventually drove me back to New Zealand and back to study. My mother was my biggest driver. I really wanted to show her that all she has sacrificed is worth it. My mother has become a catalyst for everything I do.”
Turns out Guled’s teachers were wrong and University was exactly the place for people like him. He enrolled in Public Policy at AUT and after passing with flying colours, he then spent the next seven years working for the New Zealand Government in various areas including Diversity and inclusion and pay equity. Then he was awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship which allowed him to study towards his Masters in Public Administration, specialising in Human Rights and Social Justice at the Ivy League ranked Cornell University, in New York.
Along with his studies, Guled is also a passionate advocate for refugee rights and an advocate for muslims in New Zealand. He became something of the spokesperson following the Christchurch Mosque attacks and has spoken at the UN twice and chaired conversations with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He has also appeared on Sesame Street, alongside Grover in a special programme about refugee children.
“For me I really see an opportunity for Aotearoa to play a world leader in the space of crafting and implementing more humane and welcoming social economic policy settings for refugees and minority groups. This is something I am passionate about and I will continue to use my voice and my platform to help spur and influence change in this space.”
In around two months time Guled will graduate from Cornell and return to New Zealand, bringing with him the international experience, thinking and ideas that he has gained from his peers and public policy experts during his time offshore. He wants Kiwi to better understand the value that refugees and others with offshore experiences and diversity of thought can bring to New Zealand.
“The overall objectives of the Fulbright programme is to build up all this knowledge and experience and then return home and use that to New Zealand’s advantage, to help give back to the country. My end goal is to continue working in the public policy space to create a better experience not just for marginalised communities but also for everyone else as well.”
“With Graduation coming up I have been reflecting a lot on my path. Defying expectations has been the theme of my life. I have had to work really hard to prove my contributions and my value. It’s nice to be able to say, look at me now and look at what I have achieved. I want my story to be a message of inspiration to other young Kiwi, to show that they can not only achieve great success in New Zealand but also take that success to the global stage. It’s a good feeling to look back and see how far I have come.”