Meet Ahlam from Gaza, Palestine. Ahlam is a beauty therapist located in the heart of New Plymouth. “I graduated in 1994 at the National School of Aesthetics in Christchurch,” she tells me and continues: “I worked for a year after I graduated. The thing is we travel back and forth. But I did have a business in Christchurch from 2004 to 2006. In Taranaki almost three years now. Back home in Gaza I practiced beauty therapy from my husband’s clinic during the day. He worked at the hospital as a neurosurgeon and had a clinic at home in Gaza where he worked from home for the local people. I have a degree in Early Childhood, but to be honest, this was kind of my passion. I love the treatments and meeting people. I love being a beauty therapist. Beauty therapy is my passion.
Motivation to live in New Zealand
“My husband wanted to do further study. He was a doctor. He graduated in Egypt and we worked in Saudi Arabia. He came to New Zealand to specialise in his field, and did part of his study in New Zealand. Being from Palestine we didn’t really have freedom. We struggled everywhere we travelled with our travel documents. But when we got a proper passport we were so proud to be New Zealanders. We became citizens in 1989,” Ahlam says. “I’m thankful, just feel really blessed. This is our home now. I mean honestly, when I still remember the cold breeze on my face when I landed in Auckland in ’86 I fell in love with the country, and I fell in love with the the air. This is the place where I want to be. Every time, even though away, I would always come back, something just pulled me back and yeah. I am really happy that I can be here.
“What made you move to New Plymouth?” I ask.
“We were too afraid to go back to Christchurch with the earthquakes and stuff.” She laughs. “My son said he had friends in New Plymouth and said it’s a good little town.”
To say that the family is well travelled is an understatement. In 1983 Ahlam’s family travelled from Gaza to Saudi Arabia and came to New Zealand in 1986. In 1989 they travelled to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where Ahlam’s husband worked as a neurosurgeon and stayed there until ’92. “We were in Brunei for a few years, from 1992-’95,” Ahlam says. “Then I came to New Zealand with the kids while my husband stayed behind for one more year. I had four children when I came. I did my training and graduated in ’95.” She continues: “We went back home to Palestine in ’97 with the whole family. My husband at that time was working for Tel Aviv University, where he worked for seven years. In Palestine I had four more children,” she adds. “I have a total of eight. We came back to New Zealand in 2004. In 2006 we went back home to Palestine again and stayed there for two years. But we couldn’t live there because of a lot of conflict. My husband left to Bahrein where he worked for eight years. He went ahead and then we followed. We lived in Bahrein from 2008 to 2015. He worked for the BDF (Bahrein Defence Force) as a civilian doctor at the emergency department at the hospital.” Finally in 2016 the family decided to come back to New Zealand, where they lived in Auckland. A year later, instead of going back to Christchurch, the place they first landed back in ’86, they decided on living in New Plymouth.
“How did your family back in Palestine react when you wanted to live in New Zealand?” I ask.
“To be honest, as a Palestinian race we are everywhere. All over the world,” Ahlam tells me. “You find them in Canada, in England, Australia and everywhere. Because we want a peaceful place to be as in Gaza Strip it is at war all the time. So a lot of people just want to leave. And that’s why education is really important to us. We all have to have a degree, you have to push your kids because without your education and having a good career you are nowhere.”
“I have three boys, five girls. That’s why I had to have more.” She laughs.
“Did you see if you could get more boys?” I ask.
“Yes. It’s the culture,” Ahlam replies. “Not just me. When I had four, I thought ‘that’s it. I’m going to choose a career and I’m done’. But when we went back home that wasn’t accepted by the culture, and my mum.”
“My eldest daughter is a high school teacher and has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Gaza. My son did a Master’s Degree from Otago in neuroscience. He works for a pharmaceutical company in Australia. My next daughter has a degree in architecture. She and my oldest daughter live back home in Palestine and are married,” she adds. “My next daughter who works for Work and Income has an IT degree. My son in Auckland has one more year to go and he is going to be in IT as well. And then another daughter is nursing. The youngest daughter is moving to Dunedin to study dentistry. My youngest son, hopefully he will study medicine … Yes, we push them to succeed.”
Ahlam and her family practice the Muslim religion. I notice that she is not wearing a hijab. “You clearly have integrated very well in the Western culture. Is that something that you deliberately chose to do?” I ask.
“Yes,” Ahlam replies. “Up to when we were in Auckland we were wearing the hijab. And every time we went back and forth we were wearing that. But when we decided that this is a new beginning for us, we didn’t really want to stand out. When you are wearing a hijab you feel like people are looking at you. We really wanted to fit into the community. My husband said: ‘A new town, a new beginning’. So I stopped wearing the hijab in 2017 when we moved from Auckland to here.
“It is really nice to hear that you had the full support of your husband as well,” I say.
“He is always behind me. He’s telling me: Do all you need,” she answers.
“I’ve always been active within the community,” Ahlam says. “Even in Christchurch, where we started an Arabic school. Even for the first year I was teaching the kids Arabic, because to be able to read the Quran, you have to read Arabic. So I have always taught Arabic, wherever I go. Then I got too busy. But if there is a function, I am definitely there. We celebrate, we fast. We have the Ramadan – the fasting month. So we bring a plate, we cook, we meet, and I keep contact with the ladies. We do the five times a day prayer, like so many Muslims.”
“I am proud to be a part of New Zealand,” she says. “It’s a huge thing, to be here. To be able to fit in. At the moment I’m proud of my business and I am trying to grow it, and I am proud of my kids, what they have become.”
“In the short term, I’m in the process of moving my business to a better place. And long term… I want to see my kids get married. My other son’s not married. In our culture, you look out for your kids. Your success is when your child is successful. You measure being a good mum. You’ve done a good job when you know that they are fine financially, and family wise. For example when you have a toddler, you teach them how to take the first step, you just watch and so I’m watching the kids and I’m happy and proud of all of them, and of what they have accomplished. Finally with the kids grown up I have time for myself, and I want to be good at what I do. I want to be able to provide my services to everybody.