When Aziz Al Sa’afin looked at his attacker in court and told him he’d forgiven him, it was one of the hardest moments of his life. But it was that homophobic attack on Auckland’s Karangahape Road that taught him the way to overcome hate crimes was through forgiveness and education.
The journalist and broadcaster, who shared a moving video of his experiences at a recent Rainbow Awareness information evening at Westpac’s New Plymouth branch, said speaking directly to his assailant was "one of the hardest things I've ever done”.
“I looked him in the eye and told him how he made me feel and why it was wrong. I tried to tell him what he should do with his life from that moment on and that I had chosen to forgive him,” Aziz said.
“He was facing jail time and I asked the judge to sentence him to rehabilitation instead, because he was only 19 at the time and I thought the only reason for this attack must have been through ignorance and a lack of understanding.
“The only way we can battle these sorts of crimes is through education,” he said.
The broadcaster and journalist had already faced adversity from the moment he was born - during a war in Kuwait. He came to New Zealand as a refugee and says he has always felt different and was never exposed to anyone like him on TV.
“I made that my mission to give a voice to the voiceless, which led me into broadcasting. I've always strongly believed in creating safe spaces and normalizing conversations about these sorts of issues to open up the stream of conversation with anyone and everyone who wants to listen,” he said.
Aziz is a Rainbow Ambassador and has also made it his mission in life to create awareness and support for anyone battling to ‘fit in’.
Pride Pledge Director Martin King said at the event he was thrilled to see dozens of people of all ages keen to learn more about Rainbow issues and discuss ideas for celebrating diversity in the workplace and the community.
“A lack of knowledge and understanding can be a barrier to acceptance for LGBTQIA+ people. Hopefully those who attended – either as Rainbow members or as allies – learned a lot and feel empowered to speak more openly and confidently about the challenges they face”, Mr King said.
“We had a phenomenal group of people here. It was an evening of open hearts and open minds.”
A key focus of the discussion was tolerance, with some attendees noting a lack of awareness of “difference” can contribute to prejudice and fear of gender diverse and intersex people.
One attendee, Rebecca, said that although there was more work to be done making Rainbow groups more visible and included, “events like this are a great safe space for people to ask questions they’re not confident asking in other environments.”
Westpac New Plymouth Bank Manager Ginnie Laughton said the bank wants people to feel safe and respected for who they are, and to feel comfortable being their authentic selves.
“Diversity brings benefits for us all and we hope by getting a bit more understanding, that people will find it easier to foster attitudes of kindness and inclusivity, and feel supported to speak up when in need,” Ms Laughton said.
“It was great to see so many different parts of the community represented at the meeting because although we come from so many different backgrounds, we’re all working to make Taranaki a safer and more inclusive place to live.”
“The work that Westpac does as an organisation in the Rainbow space is quite powerful and there’s a lot to be learnt from them,” Aziz said.
Westpac also held Rainbow Awareness information evenings in Queenstown and Invercargill earlier in July, and has more events planned around the country for the coming year.
These were part of Westpac’s continued partnership with Pride Pledge which aims to raise visibility for safe spaces in our communities. Pride Pledge raises awareness of the values of safety, inclusiveness and health for all LGBTQIA+ (Rainbow) people across Aotearoa.