Tampa refugees resurface as Kiwis

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Tom Dusevic, National chief reporter From: The Australian

From left, Wahidullah Akbari, Assadullah Nazari, Hussain Ewazi and Zainab Ewazi have vivid memories of their journey on a fishing boat that ended when they were picked up by the Tampa. Picture: Alan Pryke Source: The Australian
From left, Wahidullah Akbari, Assadullah Nazari, Hussain Ewazi and Zainab Ewazi have vivid memories of their journey on a fishing boat that ended when they were picked up by the Tampa. Picture: Alan Pryke Source: The Australian

HUSSAIN Ewazi remembers the stench of vomit and the panic and praying, as an unsound fishing boat, carrying 433 people, was thrashed by a merciless sea.

“In a word, fear,” the 19-year-old Afghan refugee says of his lasting memory of the torment.

Ten years on, Zakaria Safdari, 25, speaks of “a horrific journey”, as the stranded Palapa took on seawater in a part of the Indian Ocean larger vessels avoided.

“We were never told that the journey would be like this,” he says of an epic that took him from Kabul to Peshawar and Karachi in Pakistan, to Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta and then the high seas.

“Imagine a small boat travelling in such rough water. We only went because we didn’t know what was ahead.”

For Zahra Sarwari, 23 this weekend, the ordeal is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.

“I remember all the nights, quite a lot of nights, we spent drifting at sea,” she says of the penultimate leg of a year-long escape for her family of five that ended in New Zealand. “My mum tied us together, me and my two brothers, and then she tied all of us to a part of the boat.

“The one thing that got me through it all was my mum’s attitude,” the recent Auckland University graduate with degrees in health sciences and nursing says.

“Although it was a very difficult situation, she always managed to have a smile on her face. She really stopped us from becoming scared.”

Hope and, in time, salvation, came in the form of a dot on the horizon that grew into an orange leviathan: the MV Tampa, mastered by Arne Rinnan, which had responded to a mayday call. On August 26, 2001, the Norwegian freighter rescued the stricken horde, mainly Afghans and Iraqis.

An uneasy diplomatic stand-off ensued as the Australian government of John Howard prevented Rinnan from landing his passengers on the Australian territory of Christmas Island. The asylum-seekers did not want to go back to Indonesia, their point of departure, and Jakarta did not want them either. Eventually the people were transferred to the Manoora, a Royal Australian Navy ship, and a legal limbo.

In time, 131 people (including 40 unaccompanied minors known as the “Tampa Boys”) were accepted by NZ and 302 were dispatched to Nauru, as Howard’s Pacific solution to stop unauthorised boats arriving on Australian shores was born.

Ewazi, Safdari and Sarwari fled the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are members of the long-suffering Hazara minority and they have been living in Auckland this past decade. The three have adapted well to NZ life and, having come at such young ages — nine, 15 and 13 — they have more in common with Kiwis than they do with their cousins in the “stans”, who still live in turmoil and poverty.

Slick teen Ewazi speaks with the clipped accent of his adopted homeland. He is studying for a degree in sports management and coaching at Auckland University of Technology. His sister Zainab, 22, is doing an information technology course at the same institution. The young girls from the Tampa, who had travelled with parents, had never been to school.

Sarwari was the first of the young Hazara women to graduate and recently started working in an Auckland health clinic.

They are just some of the stories of success and struggle, dislocation and revival, told to Inquirer from those who were rescued by the Tampa. Hundreds have followed them under refugee resettlement and family reunion programs in New Zealand.

In the 12 years to June 2010, 1568 Afghans arrived in NZ as part of its refugee quota, about one in six of all those accepted by that country during the period. Australia’s humanitarian program in 2010-11 is set at 13,750 places; NZ’s scheme offers 750 places.

General secretary of the Hazara Association of NZ Assadullah Naziri says leaving was not a matter of choice.

“We were fleeing repression and persecution in Afghanistan,” says the floppy-haired 24-year-old, wearing a black Ramones T-shirt and loosely laced boots.

“It was a matter of life and death for us.”

“In Afghanistan there are four tribes and we belong to the Hazara tribe,” explains fellow Tampa boy Safdari, a well-travelled student of politics and English literature who is nearing graduation.

“We were discriminated against politically and economically. When the Taliban came, not only did they persecute us because of our ethnicity, but more likely they did it because of our faith. We belong to the Shi’a sect of Islam.”

“Smugglers are a pathway for people like us who wanted to escape the country,” he says.

“According to the law, what the smugglers are doing, it’s illegal, we all understand. But if you look at it from the other side, what they have done for us is a good thing. They didn’t come to my house or knock at my door asking for money, saying ‘I’m going to take you to this place.’

“This way was popular. [The smugglers] were working, they were earning. We paid them the money to bring us to here. Obviously there was dishonesty from their side that they didn’t tell us that we would be going through such a difficult journey. Their whole work was illegal. They have dealt with government officials in Pakistan and Malaysia and Indonesia. They were involved with the officials.”

In 2000, schoolteacher Khodadad Sarwari, from Ghazni in the country’s east, heard that the mullahs were coming to get him. He was often followed and his home was once ransacked. But he had already planned an escape for his wife, their three children and his brother. His father was a relatively wealthy storekeeper and provided the $US16,000 smuggler’s price for a ticket to Australia.

“When Australia rejected us, many of the Tampa people lost hope,” he says, sitting on the lounge-room floor of the east Auckland house that refugee services found for the family almost 10 years ago.

“But I knew about NZ from studying history and geography. I knew it was a nice and good country and I felt lucky to be accepted by [former NZ prime minister] Helen Clark at the time. I didn’t feel that we were rejected by the Australian people; it was just the politics of the time.”

Sitting near him is son Haadi, 14, whose memory of Afghanistan is slight.

“It was a very long time ago,” he says. “My parents tell me the stories. I just feel very comfortable now to be in such a safe and free country.”

Sarwari’s daughter Zahra uses the memory of the difficult days in her homeland and life on the run as an inspiration.

“Whenever I used to think that something was too hard, I just thought of those times,” she says. “In Afghanistan I would not have been able to do anything. I now have the opportunity and the freedom to pursue a career and work hard, so that one day I can give back some of those things that were provided to me. I really want to put something back into this society that I have got so much from.”

Last Sunday, on a rain and windswept afternoon, a dozen twentysomething Afghan men gathered at a boggy Auckland park to play soccer. It’s a loose grouping, three times a week, open to those who want to get out of the house for a few hours, to keep the heart pumping and the feet nimble. Even the gambolling cows on the neighbouring property look like they’re trying to stay warm. It’s ugly cold out here at Point England, where an utterly perfect rainbow has spread out across the bay.

Many of the guys playing are Tampa Boys, or “the boys” as they are called in the local Hazara community. It’s a brotherhood forged in harsh and splendid times, which endures.

The 40 unaccompanied minors were deemed wards of the state by authorities. When Inquirer first met them in 2004, they had lived together as one messy, boisterous, but tightly knit clan for three years in a hostel, and attended Selwyn College. Over the years, together they bought and crashed old cars, tasted Auckland night life, ventured into businesses, moved on with their lives.

Several silver Camrys with roof racks parked near the reserve provide evidence that some of the boys drive taxis; off duty, they remove the lights and cab company paraphernalia. About two-thirds of the boys (now aged between 24 and 28) have married; many of them are fathers.

Tall Ali, composed and graceful on the soccer pitch, was the first in the community to graduate from university. Now a civil engineer, he’s working at a construction firm in Hamilton, 125km south of Auckland. In February, he married Zahra Sarwari.

Habib and Mehdi have recently opened a “dairy” or general store in a nearby suburb. Others are working at the airport or in freight handling. Some are earning good incomes fixing gyprock and as building-site labourers. A handful are still finishing college and university courses, while a few more have left Auckland, seeking fortune through ventures in Palmerston North, Christchurch, Tauranga and Wellington. One industry that has attracted them is car spare parts.

Safar Sahar runs Bamian Auto Parts from a factory in industrial Onehunga. He employs eight people in a tough economy and he has done extremely well to establish an export niche. Bamian buys up Japanese car and truck wrecks of a certain vintage (“late 1980s onwards”), cuts them up, sorts the bits and sends them to the Middle East. He started the business just before the global financial crisis hit three years ago.

The stocky Sahar, 27, who sports rockabilly, crescent-sculpted side-levers, was the first of the boys to be married, in 2005, a union arranged by his parents. He now has a son and a daughter.

“I had a lot of help from contacts overseas to get started in this business,” Sahar says, sitting in a desolate office above the oil and tar-soaked concrete shop floor where forklifts and oxy-acetylene gear do their stuff.

“It’s a lot of responsibility to run a business. It’s competitive, for sure in this area. You work long days and take risks.”

By the end of 2004, most of the boys had been reunited with their families. Some were joined in Auckland by parents and a great many siblings. It meant that the weight of responsibility was on their heads immediately, just as they were entering adulthood. A number of the boys had to stop their education and support the household. It was their duty. They also had to readjust to the tight control of parents, especially

fathers, after having, in some cases, four years of freedom. There followed a recalibration of their individual hopes, too.

Many were surprised to find their parents had arranged marriages for them back in Afghanistan; honour-bound, they obeyed their parents’ wishes and married women whom they had never met or only knew as childhood playmates. They sponsored their wives’ emigration to NZ. Some of the unmarried ones are ardently trying to delay and resist their parents’ entreaties on marriage.

One of the youngest boys, Ameen Eghbal-Zadeh, is relieved that his aged and sickly father returned to Afghanistan after several years in Auckland.

“He was very strict,” says the 24-year-old, who is taking a course in security and enjoying the freedom of making his own decisions. “I want to experience all parts of life here.”

He has a Mormon girlfriend of Tongan and Samoan descent, a budding relationship his father would not have permitted.

According to one NZ observer, some of the boys just want to experience all that the country has to offer, to try new things, to think in different ways.

“They have it all in front of them and they are often caught in the bind of family expectations and tradition,” she says.

But they have generally settled in well, she says, and bear fewer scars than the Afghans who were older at the time of the Tampa rescue and were held in detention in Nauru. The ones who have blossomed most — young men and women — it seems are those who have kept close ties to the Hazara community, but through the pursuit of education and work have established friendships in the broader society.

As the rain buckets down at Point England, four of us have taken refuge in a car. Safdari or “Zak” as he prefers, says NZ has “put a great positive sign in his life”. Ameen is in the driver’s seat of the off-duty cab, showing off pictures of his girlfriend stored in his phone. In the back seat with Zak is Ali Ghulami, not technically one of the boys, as he came with family, including his nephew Hussein and niece Zainab Ewazi. Ali has braved the elements in trackpants, with black socks and thongs. It’s Kiwi national costume!

The guys are a little toey. It’s 4.30pm and as it’s Ramadan, they are fasting. No water, either. For a moment, the rain clears. The sun peeps through dark clouds. “Four seasons in one day,” says Zak, channelling Neil Finn, while Ali and Ameen smile at the allusion. “When we first came the whole world was suspicious of us,” Zak says. “They might be thinking that we were terrorists or people who might have a negative impact in their society. But we, the Hazara people are not like that. If we are offered one help, in turn we would try and respond with two or three helps. We are not like, we get something and that’s it, we walk away. If you raise your hand to shake hands, we hug you. We remember always the kindness,” he says, warming to a conclusion.

“The message from me for the Australian people is that these Hazara people, they didn’t leave their country as a choice. They left it because they were forced to. No one wants to stay away from their family, no one wants to run away from their homeland, no one wants to leave their loved ones behind, spend a whole lot of money, put themselves in danger. They do it because they are not safe. They’re not terrorists or people who have a negative impact on society. We try to do our best, if others let us.”

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