From Taliban to Tampa to Terra Firma

Afghan refugee Abbas Nazari was all geared up for his gig as keynote speaker at this year’s World Literacy Festival in Christchurch, NZ. When COVID restrictions forced the postponement of the event, the Rotary Club of Havelock North seized the opportunity and invited Abbas to be a guest speaker at the club. What ensued was one of the most powerful and memorable messages members have heard. This is his story.

By Louise Ward

Abbas Nazari was born in Afghanistan and knew little about the world beyond his village. Having watched the Taliban creep ever closer, wiping out anyone they believed ‘represented a violation of the model Islamic society’, such as his own Hazara people, Abbas’s father made the desperate decision to take his family and flee their home.

The family of seven (the youngest child still a baby) travelled, at great personal risk, first to Pakistan and then to Indonesia, Abbas’s father calling upon colleagues, old friends and acquaintances sympathetic to their plight along the way.

They managed to secure passage on a boat that would take them to Christmas Island; if they could get there and claim refugee status, the Australian government would have to listen.

The boat was not seaworthy and was desperately overcrowded. It managed to just make it through a terrifyingly violent storm, and then drifted. Abbas describes the crowded boat and the danger its passengers were in vividly, so the reader can place themselves there: sickness, malnutrition, frayed tempers, and a storm that blew apart any protection they had from the elements. But even this is not the worst of it.

Against all odds, a Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, came to their aid and after some confusing conversations with the Indonesian and Australian authorities, and negotiations with the refugees, the Captain headed for Christmas Island.
What happens then is such a travesty of human rights abuse, it will leave you fuming.

The Nazari family, among other survivors, were eventually offered refugee status in New Zealand and settled in Christchurch. For an Afghani seven-year-old, who had no electricity and slept on the roof in summer, it was a culture shock – a new world of television and trampolines opened up. The community was diverse, full of immigrants working hard to make the most of the opportunities they have been given. But there were still those who did not accept them, as we come to see when Abbas describes the events of March 15, 2019.

The story of how Abbas and his family survive, are accepted into Aotearoa New Zealand by Helen Clark’s government, and eventually thrive, will leave you gob-smacked, inspired, ashamed of the racism, and warmed by the kindness. He relates his story with good humour, gratitude and the hopefulness that characterises his writing. Reading it is a humbling experience and a timely reminder to maintain perspective when life seems hard.

After The Tampa, published by Allen & Unwin (RRP: $36.99) is now available at all major bookstores across Australia and New Zealand, as well as online at