Abbas: “I wouldn't call myself an activist or a community representative by any means, but the spotlight on this book has given me a platform to ensure that Afghan voices are heard."
At a book signing in Otago recently, someone in line turned to author Abbas Nazari’s parents and asked for their autographs too.
That’s because Nazari's memoir, After the Tampa, isn’t just his story, it’s the story of more than 400 Afghan refugees and their journey to New Zealand.
Nazari’s family fled from Sungjoy, Afghanistan to Indonesia, and in 2001 tried to seek asylum in Australia. They joined hundreds of other refugees on a rundown fishing boat for what was meant to be a short journey to Australian shores.
But the boat never made it. Its engine lost power, leaving 433 refugees drifting at sea until the MV Tampa, a Norwegian container ship, answered their distress call.
Their rescue sparked an international incident, however, as the Australian government refused the Tampa entry to its ports.
Tensions mounted between the Australian government, the Tampa’s captain and other governments, while the refugees took shelter between the ship’s containers. Eventually, some were taken to a newly established detention centre on Nauru, while 150 refugees – including Nazari’s family – were offered a place in New Zealand.
Twenty years on, Nazari sat down with pen and paper to put down the story of the Tampa families. He was a child at the time, so he went to his family and other families from the Tampa to draw on their experiences and advice.
“One of the central things I wanted to highlight in this book [was] yes, we did go through all of those horrible things, the tragedies, the hardships, but amidst that there's this incredible sense of strength and pride you get from having gone through hardship,” he says.
The Tampa families are still all incredibly tightknit, Nazari says, so he knew having their input in the book was vital. The most important advice he got from his community was to keep it serious, tell the story “warts and all” but also keep in the humour - “because there was humor and bright spots along the way,” he says.
After the Tampa was published in August to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Tampa affair. But as Nazari prepared for the launch, news started pouring out of Afghanistan as Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15. Videos and photos flew across the internet, showing people trying to flee from their home country.
With these events so intertwined, Nazari felt drawn on to add his voice to the conversations around Afghanistan and New Zealand's role in the fallout.
“I wouldn't call myself an activist or a community representative by any means, but the spotlight on this book has given me a platform to ensure that Afghan voices are heard,” he says.
Alongside others in the community, Nazari is pushing for two key responses from the New Zealand government: Firstly, allowing anyone who has a right to come to New Zealand – from citizens to those who helped with the NZDF effort - to be given a pathway to the country, and secondly, allowing for an emergency intake of Afghan refugees.
So far, he says the government has been “very, very silent” on providing more help for Afghan refugees, but he is forever an optimist.
“Hopefully we'll hear back from this government soon.”
In the meantime, Nazari has been travelling the motu, sharing his story. Writing After the Tampa has sparked a passion for writing and it’s a passion he plans on continuing – Nazari says he’s already working on his next book, this one a fictional story which covers the last 20 years of Afghanistan’s history through the eyes of four characters.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could say that I'm a writer. It just happened and I'm falling in love with it.”
Abbas Nazari will be speaking at the Christchurch WORD Festival about After the Tampa and Afghanistan with former Prime Minister Helen Clark this Friday, November 12 at 12 pm. Tickets for the live event and its accompanying live stream are available here. Nazari will also be speaking in Palmerston North on November 30.
- Asia Media Centre
Author: Eleanor Wenman