Abbas Nazari was stranded on a ship in the Indian ocean when he first heard the words “New Zealand”.
Then aged 7, Nazari’s mother, father and four siblings were among 433 asylum seekers, predominantly of the ethnic minority Hazaras of , plucked from a sinking fishing boat by the Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa. They were later transferred to the HMAS Manoora, where they waited for asylum after Australia refused to accept them, creating an international quagmire over which country would, or should, offer sanctuary on humanitarian grounds.
Tampa refugee taken in by New Zealand wins Fulbright scholarship
Australia was in the midst of an election and many analysts believe Nazari says Howard used the lives of the Tampa refugees to set a hardline example of his zero-tolerance approach to boat people.
“Australia was always the destination, we hadn’t even heard of . A lot of people packed up and left thinking that it was the promised land. In our particular case they made a strong point of saying ‘no, you’re not welcome’; and they used us as an example to get that point across.”
Nazari’s family had travelled for six months via Pakistan and Indonesia, searching for asylum. In Afghanistan the minority Hazaras were persecuted and executed by the Taliban. “We were seen by the Taliban and their people as a tumour that needed to be cut and gotten rid of,” “For halftime entertainment at local football matches, my people were brought onto the field and stoned to death.”
Marooned at sea, Nazari and his family were at the mercy of international goodwill, in the same week as two planes flew into the twin towers in New York.
“Every day we received updates that ‘sorry, nothing has happened, no country is willing to accept you guys’,” remembers Nazari, now a civil servant in Wellington.
“One day we were told that little old New Zealand was willing to accept us … that news was a huge, huge blessing. Who the hell is New Zealand, and where is that? That was quickly dispelled by ‘at least it’s as far away from this boat as possible’.”
This week Nazari, a first-class honours graduate of international relations and diplomacy from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, was awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship, granting him a year’s postgraduate study at Columbia University in New York. The scholarship was awarded just days before World Refugee Day, marked around the world on Thursday.
Nazari, 23, says the intense scrutiny that has come with his achievement mildly bugs him, with its suggestion that his academic nous is somehow exceptional, rather than a broader indicator of the potential of all refugee kids to thrive when given a chance.
Nazari first learned English at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement centre in Auckland, weeks he remembers for the “stable ground” beneath his feet, regular meals and the lifelong friendships formed with other Tampa kids. Then, his parents – a stay-at-home mum and a truck-driver dad – were flown to the South Island with their five children to settle into a state house in Christchurch. Waiting at the airport was a huge contingent of locals to welcome them – warmth and acceptance that Nazari says set the tone for the family’s new life in New Zealand.
“I can’t recall any instances of racism, and that’s the same experience for the vast majority of my family and community. I can’t recall any instances where I was marginalised or I was on the receiving end of a whole heap of crap at all. I think it helps that I came as a young child, went to primary school, learned the language, started playing rugby,” says Nazari.
“We wove naturally into the fabric of New Zealand society. So when I hear stories of prejudice and racism, I know for sure that it exists but my experience in New Zealand has been amazingly warm and welcoming.”
Labour’s was prime minister in 2001 when she made the bold decision to take in 131 Tampa refugees. On Monday the former prime minister offered her congratulations on Twitter to Nazari, as did former foreign affairs minister Phil Goff, saying the decision remains one of the government’s best.
“I think with the Tampa case in particular it was a case of moral leadership from the Clark government of the time. It just took the prime minister to put her hand up and say ‘fuck it, we’re doing this’,” says Nazari, who won’t be drawn on whether the current government is doing enough to help the asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.
Last year Nazari was part of a World Vision campaign to get the children off Nauru.
“I really do feel for those people, I know the desperate situation they’re in.The sad thing is they can’t obviously go forward because Australia is saying that the door is closed, but its not like they have any choice to go back.”
Three months ago Nazari was in Christchurch when , killing 51 people. Nazari ran towards the Al Noor mosque, gathering at the police cordon to help survivors as they emerged.
“Slowly from out of the bushes, between cars, out of neighbouring homes, all the survivors started emerging, drenched in blood and with an absolute look of horror on their faces,” remembers Nazari, still visibly shaken by the attack on his home town.
“As a refugee from a country that knows its fair share of violence and war and conflict, and to arrive in New Zealand, which is as far away as you can get, you think, you know, you feel that you have changed worlds entirely. So for us, as a community to suddenly have a little bit of that old world come to us … that shocked us to the core.”
Nazari, who speaks Farsi, English and is learning te reo Māori, the language of New Zealand’s indigenous people, leaves for New York in August. He has no five-year plan, no idea of what he’d like to do or where he’d like to work, but storytelling appeals. Turning people’s preconceptions of a refugee’s life and potential on its head is something of a passion for Nazari.
“Yes it [the Fulbright] is the result of my own individual hard work and I’m not going to shy away from that, but I really want to emphasise that me being given this opportunity now allows others kids who might look or sound like me to be like ‘hey, I can do that. I can put my name in the ring. I can apply for that’,” says Nazari.
“When I look up at positions of leadership in sports, academia and business and culture, there’s not many folks who have a story like mine or look like me or who come from the same background I have. I’d love to set the foundations for more migrant, refugee and ethnic background kids to feel the door is open for them.”
• On 24 June 2019 this article was amended to correct the number of asylum seekers onboard the Tampa. A previous version incorrectly stated the number to be 430. The actual number was 433.