Sunday, May 26, 2024

Escape to Freedom

For someone who didn’t know how to hold a pencil when she first arrived in New Zealand in 2013, Soghra Habibi has written a captivating autobiography titled Halfway round the world—My life journey in Afghanistan and New Zealand. The foreword of the book is by former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark. From hiding in the mountains with a forty-day-old baby to being awestruck as she set foot in New Zealand, Soghra shares her spellbinding journey with FARIDA MASTER.
Soghra Habibi

Survival was hard

Soghra was nine-years old when her father passed away leaving her mother with five young children.

“We were very poor, and it was hard for us to survive.

I never had the opportunity to go to school. I just helped my mother with housework and looked after my four-year-old brother and five-month-old sister. There was no girls’ school in the village we lived in,” says Soghra.

“I couldn’t even write my name in Farsi. I learnt my alphabets in English at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre where we were stationed for seven weeks.”

The only reason Soghra could escape with their family to New Zealand was due to the fact that her husband was an interpreter with the New Zealand Defence Force in Afghanistan.

Soghra is extremely grateful that the interpreters and their families were granted Refugee status by the New Zealand Government.

Fleeing to the mountains

At 14, Soghra got married to 21-year-old Askar, a teacher by profession.

“Life was hard as my husband didn’t get paid a monthly salary. Due to an unstable government, there were times when he would get paid once a year or then not at all.

“Looking for employment, we moved to another city where my oldest son Noorullah was born.

“Within 40 days of him being born, the Taliban attacked. We had to flee to the mountains. For weeks we moved from mountain to mountain in the bush with thorns and scorching heat. There was no food, water, medicine, clothes.

Soghra with husband Askar (far left) and sons Farhad, Farzan and Noorullah

It was very hot in the dessert. We finally came across a small village in the valley and the men descended from the mountains at sundown. A family gave us shelter and food. We stayed with them for a while in the valley and then made our way back to another mountain,” she says.

The family returned to the village after the Taliban were defeated in Bamyan.

“Tired of living constantly under fear, my husband went to Iran in search of a job. I lived with my family for two years till he returned and took me along with him to Iran. The Taliban were still in control at the time. We were in Iran for four years but didn’t like it as they didn’t treat refugees well. We returned home when we heard the Taliban were defeated.

“My husband had to look for many jobs including driving a cab till he got a job as interpreter in the New Zealand Army.

“The day he was told that he would get a visa to come to New Zealand was one of the happiest days of our lives. However, we couldn’t talk about it to anyone of our departure, including our family and friends.

“When we arrived in Palmerston North along with other interpreters and their families, the first thing I noticed is that New Zealand is so green and clean. And people are so kind. Everyone is smiling and so helpful.”

Soghra was awestruck as she spotted women drive cars and they were not even wearing a headscarf!

“I gradually learnt to read and write, and have been studying since 2014,” she says with pride.

As one of the assignments, Soghra was asked to write an essay on her life. When her teacher read it, she found it so interesting, she suggested Soghra write a book on her life journey.

Her world came to a standstill

Sadly, just as Soghra finished the final draft of the book, tragedy struck.

“On October 6, 2020, the world stopped for my family and me,” she recollects with sadness.
After the long Covid lockdown, the family decided to go for a picnic to White Beach, north of Piha.

“My daughter-in-law Anisa who was married to my oldest son Noorullah for barely six months asked me to come along for a walk to the other side of the hill. As I was chatting with a friend, I told her to go ahead and that we’d join her soon.”

An article in the Sunday Star Times states that Anisa decided to go for a walk and took the track past the Te Waha Point Lookout to Whites Beach.

About 15 minutes later, she phoned Soghra to say she had found a nice spot and suggested the women join her.

When the ladies leisurely strolled up to the point, they we were shocked to discover Anisa lying with her head down floating in the water.

They were told by bystanders and lifesavers that Anisa was sitting on a rock and had been washed away by a huge wave. A rescue operation followed with eyewitnesses calling 911 and a rescue helicopter. But the young bride didn’t survive.

The grief-stricken family is still to come to terms with the sudden death of their daughter-in-law.

“My son and Anisa (who was more like my daughter) were madly in love. They were inseparable,” she says hurting badly.

As fate would have it, Anisa’s doting husband Noroullah had opted out of the family picnic as he had to prepare for a university exam.

Soghra Habibi

“Anisa is also my niece. My son and she were both very fond of each other since they were kids. Anisa was from Kabul and always wanted to be a makeup artist. She was kind, friendly and generous girl who loved New Zealand,” says Soghra.

Even as the family is dealing with the huge loss, they continue to give back to the community.

Soghra is now a volunteer teacher at Refugees Education for Adults and Children (REAF) course at Selwyn College.

“Although my English is not good enough, I like to help those who come from Afghanistan. Specially the women. They have never been to school. Some of them don’t know how to hold a pencil, like me when I came to New Zealand.

“I am so proud of my sons. Two of them study at Auckland University and the youngest goes to Glendowie College.

“Life is much easier here than my country. I’m so happy to be a New Zealander.”

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