Bad Refugee was a candid panel talk at this year’s Auckland Arts Festival and was inspired by a school in Christchurch that asked students to “dress as refugees” by wearing “old ragged clothes” as a part of their fundraiser for World Vision. The panel – Golriz Ghahraman, Leonard Bell, and Guled Mire – was chaired by John Campbell and explored “a bunch of messy knotty questions” about the narratives and myths associated with refugees and the stories we don’t hear. Here’s your fill on the night’s most important discussion points: 


The Model Minority

Be quiet. Be grateful. Be an overachiever. And never question the status quo – even if it’s your job.

These are just some of the unwritten demands placed upon minority groups and are key components of a racial script or stereotype known as “the model minority”. With the model minority script, “there’s no room for mistake, you’re held to a very high standard” (Guled Mire) and “there’s no gift of normalcy” (Golriz Ghahraman). And, if you meet some of the conditions for a ‘model minority’ and are touted as such? It can lead to “tokenism” and a rhetoric of “if they can do it, why can’t you (the rest of the minority group) do it too?” As if the success of a person from a minority group is proof that discrimination doesn’t exist. In other words, the system is fine, the ‘fault’ lies within you. Navigating this experience of living in New Zealand becomes frustrating and tiring when someone else is both writing your life script and doing it poorly.

To sum it up with John Campbell’s quote – “nobody asks me how I’m going to represent or hold up the fort for white guys”.



‘Microaggressions’ drew a significant proportion of the night’s attention. In particular, the classic, “Where are you from? No, but where are you really from?”

According to Golriz and Guled, it’s a microaggression because it is selectively applied to Kiwis – in particular to many minority groups. When people picture a ‘Kiwi’, the image they see is either of a Pakeha or Maori person. If you’re from a minority group that experiences microaggressions, this can disrupt your sense of belonging and lead you to question your identity because you’re subtly told that New Zealand isn’t your ‘real’ home. Golriz notes that this can be an especially harsh message for those who may be second or third generation New Zealanders.

Also, as one audience member found out the hard way, don’t refer to people from minority groups as ‘exotic’.


Gendered Experiences

Being a migrant or a refugee is not a monolithic experience – partly because it plays differently with other identities, such as a person’s gender identity. Golriz explains that women from the ‘Muslim world’ are commonly viewed by the ‘western world’ as in need of “rescuing” or being “not quite there yet” when it comes to feminism and if they choose to wear the hijab. And, if you’re living in New Zealand, are independent, educated, and choose not to wear the hijab, you’re “celebrated” because you’ve escaped or have been rescued from oppressive Muslim countries. It’s this idea that ‘proper’ feminism does not exist in Muslim-majority countries and they need to catch up to the ‘real’ feminism that is present in western countries. Guled also adds that he particularly worries for his younger nieces and their potential decision to wear the hijab in a time of growing Islamophobia.

A small portion of the discussion on gender focused on men, with Golriz explaining that the label of being ‘aggressive’ is more commonly applied to men, which can make situations such as the random-but-not-so-random airport screening checks tiresome.


Assimilation vs Integration

“When you used the word ‘assimilation’, I almost had an allergic reaction.” (Guled Mire)

So, what’s the difference?

Assimilation places the responsibility primarily on minority groups and is exemplified by questions like “why can’t they be more like us?” Guled notes that minority groups are working hard, for example by learning English if they aren’t fluent and learning about the Treaty of Waitangi. However, he questions what the host society’s responsibilities are and if they are doing enough to connect with recently arrived migrants and refugees. This is integration – a two-way process where the responsibility lies on both the host society and recently arrived migrants and refugees.


“What would help?” (John Campbell)

  • We need to acknowledge that people range in terms of their feminism, religious views, sexual identity, their choice of dress, and more. “I don’t have to explain diversity within white culture” (Golriz), but there’s a tendency to lump members from minority groups together and expect them all to be the same.
  • Diverse representation. This includes not just featuring in the magazines, television shows, films, and books. But also being the journalist, writer, editor, and creative director.
  • The host society must accept and fulfill their responsibility to educate themselves on the experiences of minority groups – to be tuned into discussions, read, learn, ask questions, and listen.


NIDHA KHAN is a public health graduate and policy student who spends her time writing about human rights, youth activism, and social issues. She’s also a lover of puns, a terrible cook, and is on a mission to hug every pug in sight. You can keep up with her antics on Instagram @nidha01