Faletoalepai Rob Gaitau
Asalamualaikum O lo’u igoa o Rob Gaitau.
Alhamdulillah – I’ve finally found a place where I don’t stick out like a sore thumb!!!
I’m of Samoan heritage, but born and bred here in New Zealand. West Auckland to be exact.
Like many in our culture, I was raised by my Grandparents, which can be quite normal.
I has a very Christian orientated upbringing. My Grandparents started a EFKS Samoan Church, so most of our spare time was spent going to choir practice, sporting events, cleaning the church, you name it, our family was there.
My mother was young when she had me, I can only imagine how challenging that would’ve been for our family. Having a baby out of wedlock and at a young age would’ve brought a huge amount of shame and stigma, especially in that environment.
So, my Grandparents stepped in told my mum to finish her schooling, go to University and become something of herself.
My Mum and I have a strong relationship, more so like brother and sister sometimes. We often get asked if we are siblings. I don’t know if that’s because she looks young or I look old Zzzzzzzzz…
Growing up, I became pretty good at Sport – I started to excel at Rugby in particular. At that stage I didn’t really agree with Church and how it was run.
Don’t get me wrong, I've always believed in a higher being, GOD, but it didn’t sit well with me.
I saw my Grandparents work numerous jobs with long hours and then put the money back into church.
A lot of Pasifika families, and I can only speak on my own behalf, tend to do this quite a lot.
Money is held quite high in our community so the more money your family gives, the higher your reward not only within the church but with God. It's like a ticket to Heaven. That’s how it looked to me anyway.
I was 14 years old when I started to realise this stuff, and representative Rugby fell on Sundays. So, I told myself, if I can just make these rep teams, I don’t have to go to Church anymore, and I can sweep that life under the carpet.
Alhamdulillah, I’ve been fortunate enough to represent both my birth country and heritage at a sport I love – Rugby.
I’ve also had the privilege to play professionally in NZ, Australia and France.
As much as I loved it, I had numerous challenges...
I had numerous injuries that needed serious reconstructions before the age of 21. I went on to ruptured my Achilles twice, ruptured my PCL in my knee, and eventually had to pull the pin on playing. I was only in my mid to late 20s.
Late 20s, with no work experience. Rugby was all I knew. Plus I literally went to school to eat my lunch because I was convinced, I was going to play professional Rugby for the rest of my life.
Well, I would make enough money to lead a good lifestyle anyway.
I applied for job after job. Got declined one after the other for having no experience or qualifications. I honestly think some places would just get me in to talk about sports.
I fell into a dark place, it felt like it was getting deeper and deeper. I continued to apply for jobs and l continued to get declined.
Depression and Anxiety became very real for me. So real that I nearly took my own life.
I never knew how to deal with set backs or emotions. The rugby fraternity never really had anything set up for player welfare. As soon as they were done with you they would sign the next player. Always looking out for the next big thing.
To this day, I still believe there is more that NZ Rugby, even the NRL can do for our people. But I’ll leave that conversation for another day.
Eventually one Global Sporting company took a punt on me, Adidas NZ.
In my role with Adidas, we look after the NZ Rugby Contract and sponsor a lot of high-profile athletes.
It was good for me because it kept me connected to the sport I love, and also to guys I played with or were coached by who were still in the NZ system.
I was able to reconnect with a fellow Muslim, who I played against growing up, and who was one of our top sponsored athletes.
He had heard about my journey with depression and reached out. We would regularly catch up for coffee, and I would see the way he held himself, not only in the public eye but also around his family.
There was something contagious about it and this made me more curious. I started to learn about Islam and every time we would catch up, I would ask him questions. He would point me in the right direction and I would go and learn more.
I was drawn to Islam, because I wanted what he had.
Being content, compassionate and grateful for everything.
The rest is History – He messaged me while he was away with the Auckland Blues at the time.
I replied “All is well here Uso. I just took my Shahada.”
Islam saved my life – We plan, but Allah is the planner of all planners.
Rugby was all I knew and what I thought I was supposed to do but Allah had bigger plans.
I have started to do a lot of work for Mental Health, especially for Men.
The more I lean in and learn about Mental Health Awareness, the more I find the answers in Islam.
I tried to keep this shortish but there’s just too much to share.
Inshallah one day, I can share my journey in full with you over a coffee or green tea and honey.
My First Encounter With a Muslim.
It was at primary school. And to be honest, if it wasn’t Maori or PI’s getting mocked and teased, it was the Muslim kids – Kids can be real punk’s man!!!
We were always brought up to treat others the way you want to be treated and it's something I pride myself on.
We were different and I always found myself getting into trouble looking after those that were getting bullied.
What do I love about Islam.
It’s a relationship between you and Allah.
Going back to my upbringing, I sometimes felt that people in church felt they had to go to church to prove they are believers.
With Islam there’s none of that pressure. At the end of the day, it’s my journey. I can’t answer for my family’s doings or my neighbours. I have to answer for my own journey.
How has Islam improved me.
Prophet Muhammad SWT said ‘There is blessings which many people lose, they are Health and Free Time for doing Good."
I try remember that there are always blessings in everything. To make sure we look after our health and be more charitable. It’s in our culture to always give.
I believe our Maori and Polynesian Cultures would make beautiful Muslims – our values, morals, everything we do and are is what Islam teaches us.
My Family Likes My Changes.
My Wife has been amazing on my journey, she’s not religious at all but has seen a massive change in me and we often have conversations about Islam. My kids love it. They think anything dad does is cool, until they get in trouble, lol.
My extended family haven’t been too bad to be fair either
My Grandma thinks I’m just playing games and that it’s a phase.
I think that’s just the old school mentality. When we don’t understand things that are different it becomes wrong – Inshallah one day she will become Muslim.
She was the only one apart from my wife, whose opinion I valued. So I made the effort to sit down and spend time with my grandma to explain my decision to become a Muslim.
One thing I’m grateful for though is that all our family gatherings are now pork free and all our meat dishes are Halal meat. Cheeeehuuuuuu, lol, slowly taking over!!
As a Polynesian Muslim What Challenges Have You Faced.
For me, before I became Muslim, I had two stigmas already attached.
First, I'm the only Polynesian working for a global brand across Australia and NZ in the back office team. Yet our Athletes are 80% of Polynesian heritage….
So, meeting with external parties, I was never seen or made to feel included. I was always that Big guy who looks like an athlete and could only talk sport.
The second, I was carrying around the stigma of Mental Health issues (follow my journey on Instagram @ballsyballsyballsy if you want to know more about that).
Now I have the added the stigma of being a Muslim. IM PROUD OF ALL 3!!!!!
The NZ office place has been awesome. I think in general with the Black Lives Matter issues that happened, its finally given us a seat at the table. Well at least a foot in the door, to have these conversations around Diversity and Inclusion.
The way we are portrayed in the media has had a massive influence on what my friends, family, work colleagues and the general public think of Islam.
The way I look at it is that we are walking Billboards. The way we act, what we do and say are how people will interpret Islam. If we want to change people’s perception we need to act, do and say what the Quran says – Lead by example.
Faletoalepai Rob Gaitau – Kareem is my Muslim name.
It was given to me by a Māori Brother who I met while recently sharing my journey at a camp for the Muslim Youth in Christchurch.
Brother Talib, if you read this – Jazakallah Habibi.