Real Life

Persecuted for her faith and held at gunpoint: a refugee mum's lucky escape to NZ

For some families, this is their first year experiencing Christmas. We speak with a former refugee excited to begin a new Kiwi tradition.

By Cloe Willetts

When Maryam Koulvand was held at gunpoint by Iranian police and forced from her country because she was baptised, she was already a struggling solo mother.

Two years previously, she'd been through a controversial divorce, leaving her jobless and rejected by her parents. So when she found herself alone with a baby in Malaysia, unable to return home, she clung to her Christian faith.

Former refugee Maryam, 44, now credits her religion for leading her to New Zealand nine months ago. This year, for the first time, she'll be able to openly celebrate Christmas, watching daughter Samieh, 10, unwrap a surprise new bike before enjoying the girl's food of choice – probably pizza.

For the Wellington-based Muslim-turned-Christian, freedom to celebrate her beliefs is a breath of fresh air.

"My husband divorced me because I didn't agree that in Islam, a man is allowed to marry four women," Maryam tells. "A man can also beat his wife and divorce her by paying a small amount of money."

After a short marriage that began as a seven-year friendship, Maryam's husband gave her divorce money before handing over their one-year- old daughter "like a kitten" and said goodbye.

A distressed Maryam had nowhere to go. "When a daughter gets divorced, her father doesn't accept her like before. So I didn't have that privilege and dignity to go home."

The pair shortly before leaving for their new Kiwi life.
The pair shortly before leaving for their new Kiwi life.

Losing her job as a beautician at her family's salon, Maryam found a small apartment and used one of the two bedrooms as a beauty space. But setting up clients from scratch was difficult and she could barely afford food, which affected her breastmilk supply.

"I was under so much pressure, it was horrible," she recalls. "I was so lonely and cried all the time, and lost my faith. I didn't want to be Muslim any more because it had let me down so much."

When a client gave her a Bible, Maryam identified with the Christian religion. "I decided to get baptised, but because it's forbidden in Iran, I went to Malaysia with a friend and asked him to film it."

While there, the two had a falling-out when he tried to smack young Samieh, so Maryam told him to leave.

Maryam and a young Samieh were living in Malaysia in 2015.
Maryam and a young Samieh were living in Malaysia in 2015.

In retaliation, he handed the baptism footage to the Iranian government. Gun-wielding policemen were sent to threaten Maryam and 12 others who were involved in the video.

Thankfully, a pastor in Malaysia put the terrified mum in touch with the United Nations, who suggested she apply to move to NZ. Five years later, Maryam and Samieh arrived at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland, their life packed into a suitcase.

"When I heard I was coming here, I was so happy, I started to scream!" Maryam laughs. "Those years in Malaysia were the hardest and I phoned my friends to say all the hardships were over."

Now focusing on learning the English language, Maryam explains through an interpreter she's excited to experience a true Kiwi Christmas, even if it's small.

While she won't attend a church service this year because of language barriers, she's looking forward to exploring decorated shopping centres and adorning a tree with Samieh.

Most of all, it'll be the joy of watching her daughter test out her new bike around their quiet Miramar street, safe and happy at last.

"I've only ever had a Muslim-style Christmas and I'm excited to see how people celebrate it here," says Maryam, who dipped her feet into the ocean and felt sand between her toes for the first time during our photo shoot.

"I'm so grateful to be in New Zealand."

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