Pakistani student leverages language skills to connect communities
Mother-of-three Usma Azhar came to the University of Canterbury (UC) from Pakistan to study for her PhD in linguistics but never expected her language skills could become such a unifying force in local ethnic communities.
Fluent in Punjabi, Urdu, and English, and passionate about community service, Usma soon became a key player working to support and connect ethnic communities in Christchurch.
So extensive have her achievements been, that she has been honoured by the university with a coveted Blues Award for community engagement, and by the Christchurch City Council with a Civic Award.
Usma arrived in New Zealand in late 2016 and gave birth to her third child shortly after arriving. “It gave me the time I needed to assess society here, and I realised the value that was placed on volunteer work.”
New Zealand values transferable skills
“My background was in teaching and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) instruction. I did teach here when I first arrived, but it was not fulfilling enough,” she says. “I needed to think what other skills I had to offer in an area of work I was passionate about. New Zealand is not a destination of degrees, it is a destination of skills, where whatever transferable skills you have to offer, are valued.”
She initially got involved in UC’s Pakistani Student Association, planning events which quickly extended beyond the student community. “I got great feedback from the wider community and different ethnic groups started coming along. People from these communities were looking for connectivity and involvement and it ended up being a multi-cultural hub.”
She admits it was not without challenges, but she was determined. “I was an international student, a woman, a mother of a special needs child, and I was working. But I managed my time. I enjoy doing volunteer work and it comes naturally.”
In her second year at Uni, she secured a role as a Diversity and Engagement Officer with the Ministry of Ethnic Communities and juggled both study and work. It was in this role that she became involved in the Government response following the Christchurch mosque attack in 2019.
Frontline worker following mosque attack
“I was one of the frontline workers dealing with victims and those left behind. Some of my colleagues were victims,” she says. ““It was a difficult time. I had never had any exposure to such an event, or what the aftermath might be like. Hearing the stories, and being part of it, are totally different things.”
“I’m very proud of my work and found it very rewarding. I discovered my strengths and weaknesses and learned how much I had to offer. I could speak with many of the widows in the Muslim community in their own language, understand their needs, and advocate on their behalf. I learned how to deliver the key messages to the government agencies involved in the response and formed a link between the two groups.”
“The migrant communities have so much resilience and I believe that every disaster brings opportunity to come together, to heal, and to grow.”
Usma went on to become involved in Widows of Shuhada – an eight-part Plains FM/RNZ podcast documentary series which followed the journey of four widows following the attack.
Soon after, Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand and Usma worked on engagement with local ethnic communities, translating the Government’s messages and communicating them through a range of digital channels.
Tapping into the skills of international students
But she didn’t stop there. Usma was also influential in Christchurch’s Ethnic Communities Skills Build Programme, a project designed to smooth the pathway of migrants and international students into employment in New Zealand.
International students could join in workshops, meet career counsellors and job brokers from the Ministry of Social Development, reshape their CVs, and attend job fairs.
“I believe we need to tap into the high-level skills of post-graduate international students. We need to progress them in the right direction, utilising their skills in science, technology, and innovation.”
As for her own career, Usma could not be happier. She has secured a full-time role as a policy analyst at the Ministry of Primary Industries in Wellington and has taken a step back from her volunteer work to focus on completing her PhD this year.
She is grateful for the opportunity to study in New Zealand and to bring her family with her. Her husband is working, her children are happy, and her special needs daughter has opportunities she wouldn’t have had in Pakistan.
Usma still acts as a mentor for international students and tells them if they are to make the most of their time in New Zealand, they should “think outside the box”.
“They should think about the skills they have to offer in the community, and they will be rewarded with a transformative experience. Leaving behind the social constraints of your home country can be liberating. It’s all about following your dream.”
Usma says she’s already landed her dream job, but she plans to continue her community work once she has completed her PhD.
“I believe it is my contribution to this country and I love doing it. I’m not likely to stop. I’m just settling in, finishing my PhD, and getting ready for something big. I have ambitious plans.”