A Christchurch couple who fundraised to create a ‘living memorial’ for the victims of March 15 are calling for more government support for young Afghans affected by the war.
When Kabul fell to the Taliban last month, Christchurch couple Bariz Shah and his wife Saba Afrasyabi watched on anxiously, glued to their phones, as the remaining foreign forces and local allies evacuated Afghanistan. They scoured social media, messaged friends still living there, and watched rolling news coverage, taking in the scenes of desperation at Kabul airport.
Sitting in C1 Espresso in central Christchurch, 26-year-old Bariz describes feeling sick with dread. He was angry, too, that the enduring image and memory of the conflict would be the grisly footage of grey military planes taking off with locals clinging to their sides, not the two decades of bloodshed and injustice suffered by Afghan civilians after the US invasion.
“I don’t want that to be the image of our people,” Bariz says, forcefully.
As the shock slowly lifted, the young Christchurch couple turned to community action – just as they have for the past few years. Ever since March 15, 2019, when a terrorist attacked two Christchurch mosques, they decided to live in accordance with a new motto: embrace negative energy, transform it and use it to fuel positive change. Following the attacks, Bariz and Saba created a “living memorial” to the victims. They raised more than $20,000, then travelled to Afghanistan and used the money to establish 51 microbusinesses in honour of the 51 slain.
“When you’re hit with adversity, you have two options, right?” Bariz says. “Either you cave in, or you fight back. And me being Afghan, obviously I had to fight back.”
Bariz doesn’t cave. The indomitable young leader was born in Afghanistan but grew up in Pakistan, where his family fled as refugees. They moved to Auckland in 2001, exactly a month before September 11. Bariz recalls coming home from school to find his mother watching the carnage unfold on TV. “I remember her telling me life wasn’t going to be the same for us here,” he says. The next day at primary school, other kids started calling him names like “Osama Bin Laden”.
On TV, Bariz was watching Nato forces bomb his homeland and innocent people being killed. In the classroom, he says, the Pākehā teachers who told him what to do looked like George Bush. Feeling like an outsider, he rebelled. “That first engagement I had with people here was ‘I need to defend myself’,” Bariz says. He was expelled from three high schools for getting into fights and resisting authority.
Then he went to Afghanistan and had an epiphany: his perspective shifted, he says, from that of a victim to a survivor and optimist.
In 2012, after travelling to Pakistan to attend his sister’s wedding, Bariz crossed the border into the war-torn country his family had left when he was still a child. In Kabul, he saw American soldiers in tanks pointing guns at people. The sight left him cold, horrified at the naked aggression. In the streets, he spoke with children who were making money after school shining shoes. One night, smoking a cigarette outside the house where he was staying, Bariz saw children diving into a nearby canal for plastic bottles to sell. It was winter and the water was ice cold.
“When I saw that, I just stopped feeling sorry for myself,” he says. “Seeing those young people and how optimistic they were for their future, I was like ‘man, you’ve got to do something. You can’t let the opportunities you have in New Zealand go to waste’.”
This sense of purpose – to help people in his native Afghanistan – is behind his most recent fundraising project for recent arrivals to Kabul. Before the Taliban takeover, thousands of people fled to the capital, leaving their homes and things behind to seek refuge. They joined an estimated 3.5 million people thought to be internally displaced in the country. Bariz raised more than $6,000 to help meet their basic needs. The overall level of need, however, is staggering. This month, top officials at the United Nations warned up to one million children were at risk of starvation. New Zealand, Bariz says, has a moral obligation to help.
An evacuation mission run by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) helped airlift hundreds of people out of Afghanistan, though not everyone who wanted to get out was able to, as Jacinda Ardern has acknowledged. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), New Zealand has also contributed $6m in immediate assistance (this is separate to the $109m in on-the-ground development assistance provided over the past 20 years). While grateful for the aid rendered to date, Bariz thinks the government should do more, especially in the long-term.
In the cafe, Bariz is speaking more loudly, insistently, his words firm and distinct over the sound system. New Zealand, he says, has a duty to help the Afghan people given that we were complicit in a long-running, devastating war which killed tens of thousands. When circumstances allow, he says, Afghans should be eligible to apply for scholarships to study here and to get the education they need to help rebuild their shattered country.
“We [NZDF] were in that country for 20 years because we had to ‘back up’ the US — something we shouldn’t have done in the first place,” he says.”Now it’s only fair that we provide aid that betters the country from within.”
MFAT administers the Manaaki New Zealand Scholarships Programme. Before Covid-19, each year it funded about 1100 tertiary students from eligible countries to study in New Zealand, with a particular focus on Pacific and Southeast Asian nations. Since the pandemic, the number of countries has been restricted. MFAT couldn’t say when Afghanistan was last included as an eligible country, although a spokesperson said available records showed this hadn’t been the case since the early 2000s.
Bariz also wants universities to play their part. Since he arrived in Christchurch in 2016, he has studied civil and humanitarian engineering at the University of Canterbury (UC). After the recent events in Afghanistan, he says the university approached him asking what support it could offer. While it has always been the case, from next year UC also plans to make it explicitly clear that students from refugee backgrounds are eligible for its Bright Start Scholarships. “UC is leading the way,” Bariz says. “I think other universities should be doing the same thing if they really want to help.”
At UC, Bariz was elected president of the Muslim Students Association a month before the March 15 terrorist attack. When it happened, he says, he felt he had to step up. With this new responsibility, though, came tremendous loss. Bariz had friends who were killed in the attack, including two teenage boys he had been mentoring. He was part of the burial group at their funerals. It helped, he says, to have been able to do that.
“Once the burial was done, I was like ‘now what do we do?’” Bariz says. “Time to fight back.”
In Islam, Sadaqah Jariyah refers to a kind of long-term kindness, a gesture that continues to benefit people even after the giver has gone. It’s how Bariz and Saba approached their ‘living memorial’ idea for the March 15 victims. For each person slain in the Christchurch terror attack, the couple aimed to empower a person in Afghanistan to support themselves and their family – a long-term kindness, done in honour of the victims.
On the ground in Kabul and Jalalabad, Bariz and Saba worked with 51 people to set up small businesses. Usually, Bariz says, it was something like a cart selling fruit and vegetables or sewing reusable bags. The couple were involved every step of the way. Instead of handing over the money directly, they worked with the recipients to source and pay for what they needed to start their businesses. “We weren’t actually saying ‘this is from us’,” Bariz says. “We were always saying ‘this is from the people of Christchurch, this is from people in New Zealand’ to make sure we upheld their mana.”
Among the people helped by the project was Marzia Meerjahan Shah, a young widow and mother of six whose husband was killed in a suicide bomb attack. The couple provided the skilled seamstress, who was living in a tiny one-bedroom home, with a sewing machine and materials to make reusable bags.
Abdul Wafa, who was 17 when the couple met him in Afghanistan, was another recipient. The young man had taken a gap year from his studies to support his family. To help him, Bariz and Saba bought mobile phone supplies, like covers and memory cards, that he could sell from his metal-framed cart. Meeting Abdul, Bariz was struck by how – unlike other merchants – he wouldn’t burn plastic or rubbish to keep warm in the frigid Kabul winter. A pall of pollution hung over the city, and Bariz says that Abdul didn’t want to add to the problem. Since the Taliban takeover last month, Bariz hasn’t been able to contact him.
Still, the work continues. Bariz and Saba are working to finish a documentary about their project, called ‘fiftyone’ to be released next year. He hopes the film and his advocacy on behalf of his homeland will help strengthen the links between New Zealand and Afghanistan. Out of horror and death in Christchurch, their project helped create hope for people in a country afflicted by decades of war. After 9/11, as a young Muslim in Aotearoa, Bariz was bullied and excluded. Last year, he started working as a Muslim youth advocate, helping young people struggling in the wake of March 15. For his charitable works, Bariz has received a swag of awards, including the Christchurch Civic Award last year.
“Full circle, man,” he says.
He just hopes New Zealand offers more young Afghans the same opportunities to succeed.