Zakaria Hazaranejad: Clark's courage changed my life

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Afghanistan-born Zakaria Hazaranejad, now living safely in New Zealand, says the Kiwi contender's decision to accept refugees from the Tampa showed she has the right blend of bravery, social justice and compassion to lead the UN.

Zakaria Hazaranejad is a 29-year-old Aucklander and a political studies graduate from the University of Auckland. He is a former president of the Hazara Afghan Association of New Zealand and is preparing for studies to become an immigration consultant.

As a former refugee and now a New Zealand citizen, I support Helen Clark in her bid to become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations.

I believe there are many good reasons why Helen would be an excellent choice and my story is one of them. It is the story of a refugee, making a hard and dangerous journey that put my life at risk and then being rescued by a leader who showed courage and compassion.

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Firstly people should recognise that few people choose willingly to be refugees. It's hard and scary to leave your family and your home but most who make that decision are driven to do so out of fear and desperation. My story started many years ago and was framed by my ethnicity and the troubled state of my place of birth, Afghanistan.

It's the story of the Hazara people and the centuries of exploitation, discrimination and deprivation that have affected my people in our homeland.

In August 2001, 438 Afghan refugees - men, women and children, mostly Hazara - took a boat to Australia from Indonesia to seek safety from the deep prejudice and conflict that blighted our lives.

The journey for many of us started months before. I was 15 and alone. In the boat the people smugglers made the young boys like me sit below the decks. We had no fresh air and sea water was constantly leaking into the area where we sat. The diesel fumes made most of us sick. We weren't allowed to go to the top, which was overcrowded with families and the older men.

We had no food as we were told the journey would be only a few days long. But as the seas became rougher, we became sicker. After three days the engines died and the boat started to fall apart. And we waited. We prayed to God. We cried and shouted for rescue.

It is hard to be brave when you are facing death and feeling trapped. One long day came after another. And then we saw the Tampa ship in the distance. We were taken one by one on board and, as the last of us were taken to safety, the fishing boat broke up.

We waited for five days. Captain Rinnan watched over us like a guardian angel.

But if we thought our troubles were over we were wrong. We became part of the Pacific solution. We were transferred to Australian warship the Manoora. For five weeks we were kept below decks. Many of us were sick most of the time and we could not lose the fear of what might still happen to us. It was when the 9/11 attack had taken place in the United States and we were not important any more. The world did not wanted to know about Muslim refugees stuck on an Australian warship in the Pacific and we became a forgotten people.

Then 133 of us were given the chance to come to New Zealand under the leadership of Helen Clark. We came in two groups on the night of September 27 and morning of September 28. Most of us boys, who later were called the Tampa boys, arrived in Auckland. We didn't know what to expect. We arrived surrounded by police and officials - tired, scared and afraid of more rejection.

The Australian troop ship Manoora took the refugees from the Tampa (at rear). Photo / AP
The Australian troop ship Manoora took the refugees from the Tampa (at rear). Photo / AP


We were asked questions, had photos taken and then were taken together to the Mangere resettlement camp for further questions. Then they gave us food and for the first time in months we slept.

By December 2001 we were all granted permanent residency of New Zealand. This was the first time we were able to get a sense of belonging and peace. While we were there, we were cared for by the staff at the centre. They made sure we were fed, healthy and starting our education.

For many of us it was our first time at school. For some it was hard to be told that you had to go to school. For some it was an opportunity we had never dared hope for. But it was here we first experienced genuine kindness and here we learned about New Zealand's Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who had decided to rescue us.

We were able to thank her in person when visited us at the centre. She talked to us and she showed her concern about the safety of our families.

It made a huge impression on all of us that NZ's leader would visit refugees.

She encouraged us to find our families and in 2002, New Zealand Immigration told us it would try to bring our families to New Zealand as part of NZ's refugee quota. In 2003 it sent a team to Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan to interview our families. To have our families in New Zealand was more than we could ever have hoped for.

They were brought in three groups. The first, in February 2004, was the families of the oldest and youngest boys. In March the next group came and in May the last group. As each family group arrived we left the hostel to start a new life. In 2005 we became New Zealand citizens. To do that we had to show we understood about being responsible and obeying the law.

Now, 15 years on, the same refugees are doctors, civil engineers, lawyers, police officers, nurses and architects - professions none of us could ever have hoped to achieve in Afghanistan. Helen Clark's decision to accept many of the Tampa refugees was brave at a time of deep suspicion about Muslims. She showed courage and compassion and changed my life forever. That makes me sure she is a person who has the right leadership qualities and the right sense of social justice and compassion to lead the UN. I personally pray and wish her best of luck. #Helen4SG

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- NZ Herald

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