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As a Tampa refugee, I have seen first-hand the impact when NZ takes moral leadership

I was just a child when NZ took me and my family. Today, as hundreds of refugees cry out for help from Manus Island, we need to remember what we’re really about as a nation, writes Abbas Nazari.

During her first foreign trip as prime minister, Jacinda Ardern on Sunday renewed New Zealand’s offer to take 150 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, the sites of offshore Australian detention centres. Reiterating the pledge from the previous government, she said New Zealand had an obligation “to make sure that we maintain our obligations to the United Nations to take refugees”.

Malcolm Turnbull said Australia would not take up the offer “at this time”.

The Australian PM turned down the offer despite the torturous situation on Manus Island. As I write this, some 600 refugees remain at the closed Australian detention centre, without food, water, electricity and other essential services. Australia has pulled the plug.

It is easy to think that these refugees are far from our shores. But this is in the Pacific. Our backyard. Not some refugee camp in a far off continent, but a small and impoverished island only a few hundred kilometres from the Australian mainland.

When I see the pictures of men in the camps, with their misspelled signs and determined faces, I am reminded of our journey to New Zealand.

My story has a happy ending, but for the majority of people in war-torn countries, the reality is that life is indeed nasty, brutish and short.

I was born in Afghanistan where I lived until the age of seven. At that time, Afghanistan was under Taliban rule and a conflict that had largely remained confined to Kabul and the other major centres spilled into the rural provinces.

No longer safe in the mountainous valley where my family had lived for generations, my parents made the decision to leave and seek a better life elsewhere.

That new life was going to be in Australia, a promised land that was open to refugees.

Just like all the other refugees who undertake the perilous journey in search of another life, I was too young to comprehend the gravity of the journey ahead, or the risks involved. We made our way into Pakistan where we boarded a plane to Indonesia.

As a kid who had grown up in a landlocked valley, being on an aeroplane was an exciting adventure. I saw the ocean for the first time – an experience that stays with me to this day.

In Indonesia, we spent our days reading and writing Farsi, our native language, as my parents didn’t want us to fall behind in school.

One night my parents woke us up.

“Get dressed and get your things together. We’re going on another trip.”

I packed a t shirt, a pair of pants, a pencil and my Farsi notebook into a plastic bag. We boarded a bus and journeyed in the dark to the seaside where I could hear the crash of waves against the docked boats. Other families joined us and we were ushered into the belly of a ship.

Dawn broke and I remember seeing the endless and undisturbed horizon. We were finally at sea. The boat was packed on all levels including the deck and storage areas beneath. It was a fishing vessel, with a hole in the deck for a toilet. As day turned to dusk the weather changed, bringing in a heavy swell. The storm was so severe that the boat was at the mercy of the waves which pounded it back and forth. Those brave enough got up to bucket out the water and plug holes. The engine had cut amid the storm and each wave would batter the sides with such force that capsizing seemed imminent.

Up to this point, my childish understanding of our journey from Afghanistan seemed like a big adventure, but hearing the hushed prayers of the parents and the piercing cries from the babies suddenly grounded me to the situation. Men and women who had risked it all to deliver their families to a new beginning had accepted the risks but hoped they would never come to be. Now I could hear them praying aloud that should this be their final moments; then may God deliver their bodies to shore so they could be buried on land.

It seemed the powers that be were listening, because we survived that night, and the next day we were rescued by the container ship, the MV Tampa, all 433 of us. What ensued was an international debacle over responsibility for the boatload of mostly Afghan refugees. But the New Zealand government and public were watching and taking pity on our situation, they welcomed us to our new homeland with open arms.

I’ve been living in New Zealand ever since and I’m proud to call myself a Kiwi. I have been back to Afghanistan twice in the years since we arrived in New Zealand, and I have seen what life would have been like had my family stayed in war-torn Afghanistan.

In the beginning we were welfare dependent, but gradually we built ourselves up to integrate into the fabric of New Zealand society. The Tampa refugees are now small business owners, home owners, doctors, nurses, public servants, students and pretty keen rugby players. Given the chance at a new life, we have grabbed it with both hands.

Asylum seekers both from the Tampa and Aceng arrive at Nauru in September 2001. Photo: Fairfax Media via Getty Images

There was a story I learned in primary school about the discovery of the Land of the Long White Cloud. A contingent of waka that had been at the mercy of the mighty Pacific found refuge on the shores of these undiscovered islands. These initial settlers were joined centuries later by other intrepid souls.

We learned that gradually the society of the Land of the Long White Cloud grew to encompass people from all over the world. Men on the chase for gold, families repatriating from their homes and those joining from the Pacific community. Each new addition added their own substance and flavour to the New Zealand cooking pot and helped create the kai that is unique to this part of the world.

Now as we debate the migrant crisis, I can’t help but recall that story we learned as children. It is all the more relevant today. Because we seem to have forgotten the underlying premise of the tale – that everyone living in New Zealand is a migrant, a refugee or a descendant of one. It is all too easy to imagine ourselves intrinsically different to the Syrians and Iraqis fleeing their homes, but is their story so different from that of Polish and Dutch refugees whom sought refuge in New Zealand following world war Two?

We often look at the Tampa affair as a moment when Kiwis stood up and raised their flag of moral leadership. We can’t help the 52 million displaced people around the world, but we can do more to help the men trapped in limbo on these islands so close to home.


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