From taxi driver to top NZ cop: Indian woman's incredible story

Mandeep Kaur receiving her epaulettes from Police Commissioner Andrew Coster (left) and Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumah...

Mandeep Kaur cried a lot in the six years she was separated from her two children.

She had to leave them in India with her parents when she came to New Zealand - "the saddest years of my life", the 52-year-old police officer recalls.

This month, Mandeep became the first India-born woman to reach the rank of senior sergeant in the New Zealand Police. A poster child for ethnic and gender diversity in the public service, her children have grown up and she is a proud grandmother of two...

...Born to a conservative family in Punjab, Mandeep is tall for an Indian woman. When she was growing up her mother would say, 'you could have joined the police if you were a boy'. But uniformed jobs in India at the time were for men, and women did less adventurous work. "It was my mother who gave me the police dream," she says.

She was married just before she turned 18, and gave birth to her daughter at 19 when she was in her final year of college. She was breastfeeding when she took her final written paper.

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She pressed on and got her degree in political science and sociology. It was an arranged marriage and had its ups and downs, so she knew that being independent was important, and a university education was a big part of that.

Her marriage ended in 1992. She moved back to her parents' home with two young children in tow, and waited for her husband to come back for her. In her culture, broken marriages are often blamed on wives...

...The day of her departure, her father took her two children out for a KitKat. Amardeep was only 6 and Parneet 8 at the time. They did not say goodbye, not knowing she was going away. It would have been too hard, too emotional, she says. For many years after that, she did not eat KitKat. It still hurts when she thinks of that day.

She couldn't speak much English when she landed in Australia in 1996. For the next six years, she would be a long-distance mother, prevented from bringing her children over by a complicated custody battle with her ex-husband.

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Her first job in Australia was a door-to-door salesperson getting homeowners to change telephone services. She remembers what it was like on the sidewalk on a rainy day, trying to keep a flimsy piece of paper out of the rain because it has her lines written on it.

"I was able to read and write but I couldn't really speak. So I'd written my pitch on a piece of paper and I'd go door to door to sell."

She learned to use cardboard wrapped in plastic and how to read a map. "It helped me build the confidence to speak with people and go beyond the sale to talk about other things."

She also drove a taxi, a job she continued when she came to New Zealand in 1999. One night she was discussing happiness with a passenger, a psychologist who said that realising a childhood dream can be a source of happiness. That got her thinking about her old police fantasy.

Mandeep learned early on that people love to help people who help themselves.

She talks about the late John Pegler, a retired police officer she affectionately calls her Kiwi dad...

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...Pegler gave her hope that her dream was possible. Her parents, children, friends, a long list of people in her life including the physical education officers in the police have all helped her along the way, she says.

"If you look around you there are always people who can help. Look for those opportunities and reach out.

"Grab them to make a difference within yourself, then you can make a difference in the world out there."...

...In 2002, her children arrived in New Zealand as teenagers. Two years later, she put on a police uniform for the first time.

Her own experiences of failure and hardship inform her police work today. "It makes you better at understanding people who may be in the same place you were once at," she says.

"It's not that we can tell people what to do, but because we've been there before, we can help them clarify their situations."

Did she ever struggle with self-doubt? "No. I still felt like I was very capable and should not give up. Just keep doing it, that's my attitude."

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Everyone has strengths to be identified and given a big shot of belief, she says. Everyone has challenges too.

"Some more, some less depending on which family, which country you were born in. How you deal with them is key. Only you can make changes for the better. Nobody else can do it for you."...

...Each time she didn't meet the mark, she'd say to herself: one more time. One of those times saw her promoted to senior sergeant, a rank below Inspector. Senior sergeants make up 5 per cent of the police force, often have tactical command and lead policing activities across a whole district.

Mandeep moved to Police National Headquarters in Wellington this month, for her new role as senior engagement adviser in a unit tasked with preventing harm across New Zealand's ethnic communities.

"My grandkids were born here. I want to leave this country a better place for them so they don't face issues as the children of migrants."

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