Book review

After the Tampa

Abbas Nazari

In a few words

“Escaping the Taliban as a young child. Adrift at sea as a refugee for weeks. And finding home in Aotearoa.” After the Tampa’s subtitle neatly summarises the three parts to this important New Zealand memoir.

This book takes a big hairy issue like the refugee crisis and puts a Kiwi face on it. While few of us will have personally experienced a journey quite like that of Nazari and his family, the fact is we all owe our existence here in New Zealand to relatives who came before us — those who made the decision to set sail in pursuit of a better life.

Great for

It will be of particular interest to Christchurch locals, who will recognise the neighbourhoods Nazari describes, the schools he attends and the experiences he has growing up in the city. However, with the number of refugees globally set to rise through both conflict and climate change, this is an important read for anybody.

Why I love this book

Combining history, politics and social commentary with personal struggles and triumphs, all three parts of this memoir will make you think critically and feel deeply. 

In 2001, seven-year-old Abbas Nazari’s parents faced an impossible choice: allow their family to become more victims of the Taliban’s genocide on the Hazara (an ethnic minority in Afghanistan) or risk everything by stepping on to a fishing vessel of questionable sea-worthiness for the chance to escape persecution. Leaving their life in the beautiful Afghan countryside behind them, the family makes the difficult decision to flee, their journey stopped just short of their intended destination of Australia by engine failure and a vicious storm. Dead in the water and dangerously overloaded, Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, responds to their distress call. Moments after being disembarked, the flimsy fishing boat sinks.

As the Australian government defies maritime law and refuses to allow the Tampa to enter their harbour, Nazari and his family are stranded for weeks on the ill-equipped freighter, dealing with uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions while the small, bewildered crew do their best to care for the refugees and wangle with the Australian authorities.

Ultimately, Nazari ends up being one the lucky ones, a select few invited to resettle in New Zealand.

You may think the story ends there, but the high-stakes time at sea is followed by captivating insights from a young child and his family finding a new home in a strange place. But don't just take my word for it, I read this book with my book club and we all felt it was a compelling page-turner from start to finish.

One of the biggest discussion points was the behaviour of the Australian government and the shocking politics at play at that time. While Nazari’s family were lucky enough to be rehomed in New Zealand, it was much harder for some of the single men who spent years in detention on Nauru. Nazari and his family are a true testament to the mana of refugees and their potential to be successful, resilient, caring, involved citizens — the polar opposite to John Howard’s government’s narrative of “boat people” as security threats and economic leeches.

My one criticism would be

That it ended. I will be curious to see what's next for Abbas as he continues to write and speak about his story and the story of refugees worldwide.

Renee Blackburn


Renee's book group has reignited a passion for reading widely, but she’s particularly partial to well-written non-fiction that encourages her to view the world in a different way. 

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