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Like sardines, 438 refugees were crammed into a space that should have held 40…

At the age of seven, Abbas Nazari boarded a boat with his family to escape persecution in Afghanistan. After a long, frightening journey, he now calls New Zealand home.

Like sardines, 438 refugees were crammed into a space that should have held 40…

In 2001, the Taliban were at the height of their power. The extremist ideology that they exercised brought Afghanistan to a halt and then a fall. The whole concept of basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and expression, went out the window.

I am part of the ethnic minority, the Hazaras. My people were persecuted and executed. For half-time entertainment at football matches, Hazaras were stoned to death in front of a live audience – education en masse on the price of disobedience.

My father decided the best thing he could do for his family was to arrange for us to leave our home in Jaghori, Afghanistan, and start afresh elsewhere. That fresh start was going to be Australia. We had heard that Australia had an open-door policy on asylum-seekers from Afghanistan. So we set out in the spring of 2001.

Crossing the border into Pakistan in a cargo truck one night, we arrived in Karachi, where my family stayed in a one-bedroom apartment while our travel documents were finalised. There, we were joined by many more Hazaras escaping the atrocities at home. I celebrated my seventh birthday in Pakistan. I remember feeling homesick and constantly reminding myself that we were only in the next country.

Indonesia was the next step. We spent two months in Jakarta, and I never got used to the differences. And then one night, I was startled awake by my mother. A ship would take us. Quickly, we were rushed to a waiting bus and driven off to the port of Merak. We could hear the crash of the waves and joined the other families that had arrived with us from Pakistan. Being careful not to fall into the black water, we marched along a plank into the belly of the unknown ship.

Stranded in the ocean

The next morning, I got the chance to truly explore the vessel. The Palapa 1 was a fishing vessel. Just like sardines, 438 refugees were crammed into a space that should have held 40. I remember needing to go to the bathroom, and when I discovered that it was a simple hole in the ship that opened directly into the sea, I decided I didn’t need to go to the bathroom anymore.

The engine failed on the second day, and the boat halted in the Indian Ocean. That night, a storm hit. Heavy swells battered the vessel the whole night, and this was the scariest moment of the whole journey. We had come to understand that the ocean was impossibly big, and we were at the mercy of the unforgiving waves.

That night, the men reached the lowest point of their lives. Imagine yourself in my father’s position. He had taken the risk to do what he thought was best for his family and now thought he had condemned us to death. I could hear the men praying to God to wash our bodies onshore so we could be buried on land. It was a miracle we survived that night. The captain had put out a distress signal, and the next morning, a small Australian border-patrol plane flew overhead. This sparked great joyfulness and a renewed sense of hope. But nothing happened.

The one man among us who could speak some broken English had the idea to write the letters SOS on an old sheet and hold it on the deck for the next plane. That afternoon, the same plane flew overhead, but once again, nothing eventuated.

But that evening, God heard our prayers and sent the MV Tampa. This Norwegian cargo ship was on its way
to Singapore from Fremantle in Western Australia when it picked up the distress signal.

On August 26, 2001, we climbed the steps onto the Tampa. As the last person climbed on board, the Palapa 1 sank – with all our belongings. All we had were the clothes on our backs.

We spent a week aboard the Tampa, sleeping in containers and praying on deck. We wanted to go to Christmas Island, which was under Australian control. From here, we would be processed and, we hoped, accepted into Australia. But Australia was in the midst of an election, and boat people were the number one topic. John Howard closed Australia’s doors on us to further his campaign. Captain Arne Rinnan got us to within 10 kilometres of Christmas Island before Australian SAS boats forced back the Tampa.

At the same time, Rinnan was under pressure from his bosses to move his freight to Singapore, so he could no longer host us aboard his vessel.


We were transferred to the HMAS Manoora – an Australian Navy ship. This was an upgrade – it had bedding and shower facilities. But we still had nowhere to go and were simply waiting out on the ocean.

In total, we spent three and a half weeks aboard the Manoora, and while on board, 9/11 happened. But we were completely unaware.

At this time, New Zealand raised its hand and accepted us as part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees quota. Upon hearing this news, we were just relieved and grateful because it meant an end to our six-month journey from Afghanistan.

On September 28, 2001, we touched down in New Zealand. There, on the tarmac of Auckland airport, for the first time since we had fled Afghanistan, we felt our feet were on solid ground – we were home. My father had delivered us, and this was our new beginning.

Looking back on how I came to be standing here, I am so proud to call this tiny island my home. This nation is the last land mass to be colonised. From the first waka that landed on our shores to the latest flight, this country is forever enriching its identity with migrants and refugees from all over the world. It is not six degrees of separation but six degrees of connection that forms the tapestry of this nation.

So as I look forward to the future, I ask, how can I make a difference? The reality is we all have the power to make a difference. We are all capable of bringing about change, as small or as big as we imagine it to be.

It can be as easy as listening to someone telling their story.

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2 Comments on Like sardines, 438 refugees were crammed into a space that should have held 40…

  • ken
    June 21, 2013 8:43 am

    A very timely reminder. I have met and spoken with several of Abbas’ fellow refugees from the Tampa.
    All those I have met have very strong regards for their new country.
    They all will always be very welcome here.
    Thankyou for the article.

  • Jen
    June 21, 2013 10:02 am

    Welcome home to you and your family.

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