The refugee chronicles: what Hibbah did next

Adam Dudding
05:00, Sep 28 2019


Hibbah Al Hayee: teacher, seamstress, mother, refugee – and soon-to-be small-business owner.

A couple of years ago, photographer Chris McKeen and I spent a few months following Hibbah Al Hayee, her husband Salman Ahmad and their daughter Attia Tul Kafi, as they received a crash-course in Kiwi customs at Mangere’s Refugee Resettlement Centre, before beginning a new life in Hamilton.

They’re Ahmadi Muslims, and fled to New Zealand via Thailand because in Pakistan the Ahmadi are persecuted for their differences from the Muslim mainstream. In 2010, fundamentalist gunmen launched simultaneous attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, killing 87 worshippers. Salman was inside one of the mosques that day, lying on the floor for 40 minutes as bullets ricocheted off the mosque’s concrete pillars.

Hibbah’s family struggled on another three years before finally fleeing Pakistan, but not long before they left, Hibbah recorded a short video clip on her cellphone, explaining how she was being harassed out of her job teaching clothing design and dressmakinHibbah Al Hayee with her daughter Attia on the day they arrived in Hamilton in 2017. g at a polytech in the village of Panwan.

Hibbah Al Hayee with her daughter Attia on the day they arrived in Hamilton in 2017.


In the video she pans along the classroom’s rows of industrial sewing machines, then points the camera at the poster the fundamentalists have put up in her classroom, quoting Pakistan’s anti-Ahmadi laws. Remember, says the poster, that Ahmadis are not allowed to call themselves “Muslims”; that they’re banned from calling their mosques “mosques”; that they must not do the call to prayer.

Hibbah gave that cellphone video to me and McKeen; we got it translated and used an edited version of it in the online version of our story.

Attia with her parents Hibbah and Salman, at their Hamilton home last year.

I’ve stayed in touch off and on with Hibbah since the story came out. Last year Chris and I returned to Hamilton to meet Daud – Attia’s new brother – and catch up with the family’s progress. Learning a new language; starting a new life while carrying debt incurred during years in refugee limbo; studying for New Zealand qualifications so they can get better jobs – life for the new New Zealanders was full-on, but they were feeling positive.

Then, in March this year, came the Christchurch shootings. Hamilton is 1000km from Christchurch, but it was still horrifyingly close for a family who’d already survived one mosque massacre. This was why they’d left Pakistan. This sort of thing wasn’t meant to happen in New Zealand.

I sent Hibbah a WhatsApp message that day to ask how they were holding up. Her reply was to the point: “We are scared” – followed by a frowning emoji.


I haven’t talked to Hibbah often since then, but last week my phone pinged with an update.

Before I read the message, I noticed that Hibbah had updated her profile pic to a photo of Daud, wearing a white bobble-hat and looking very cute. There’s every chance Hibbah made that hat – she’s an accomplished seamstress, and she’s been designing and making all of her daughter’s clothes for years.

Which is sort-of why she’s back in touch. Her big news – sent in a flurry of WhatsApp bubbles – is that she’s been working for a clothing alteration and repair shop at a mall, but now the franchise owner wants to sell up, and Hibbah is taking out a loan to buy the franchise herself. There’s paperwork to sort out, and it’s not quite official yet, but Hibbah – teacher, clothing designer, mother, wife, refugee – is also about to be a New Zealand business owner. The last sentence reads: “It’s mine,” along with another emoji – a grinning one this time.

Then one more message – an attachment. It’s a cellphone video Hibbah has just made, and it’s weirdly reminiscent of the one she showed me two years ago. Once again, it’s Hibbah in a room full of sewing machines, doing a walking tour of her workplace. Except this time she walks the camera across to a till and an eftpos machine, and in the background you can see an escalator and signs for Just Jeans and Jacqui E. And instead of a list of hateful slogans, the big poster on the wall is a price list.

I’m not sure I have any particular point to make here, except this: if you’re in Hamilton after October 6 and you need some trousers taken up, or a suit jacket let out, or a cuff mended, I really doubt you could do better than taking it to the new franchisee at LookSmart at Centre Place mall. If you see Hibbah, say hi from me.



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