NAJAF from Melbourne: SMALL BUSINESS OWNER
Few people would have the gumption to start a small business in a country that, after locking them up for four months, offered only temporary protection. But Najaf Mazari is one of them.
A softly spoken Afghani man originally from Mazar-e-Sharif in the country's north, he was taught how to make traditional rugs by his family. It's a valuable skill and one he has put to good use here in Australia.
As members of the Hazara ethnic minority, Mazari and his family endured persecution by the Soviets then the Taliban. In the late-1980s the former (Soviets) dropped a rocket on his family home, killing his brother and brother-in-law, and permanently injuring his mother and himself (he suffered leg injuries). The latter (Taliban) murdered his uncle and cousin in 1998 by setting their house alight. "My life is very sad because always we were persecuted," explains the 34-year-old.
Desperate to escape from the constant violence, Mazari paid a people smuggler $3500 (US) to bring him to Australia in 2001. He travelled by car to Pakistan, then by plane to Indonesia where he boarded a small fishing vessel with 96 other asylum seekers. What followed was a nauseating nine-day voyage that almost ended in disaster when their engine broke down.
"We were near a cyclone," he vividly recalls. "But we were very lucky because an Australian aeroplane saw us and telephoned the navy. The navy brought us to Ashmore Reef," which lies north of Darwin. If the plane hadn't spotted them, he maintains that they would have surely perished within hours.
Mazari spent more than a fortnight on Ashmore Reef before being transferred to Darwin, Adelaide, and finally to Woomera. He was incarcerated for four months while his case was assessed. "I was lucky. I found a job washing cars and working in the kitchen for one dollar an hour."
During his time in Woomera, Mazari says he witnessed acts of frustration and despair, including detainees cutting themselves. "Always trouble, always fighting," he sighs. He worked hard and avoided conflict. "In Afghanistan there was always fighting. I don't like fighting."
Released on a TPV in August 2001, he moved to Melbourne hoping to find factory work. When a lady he'd met on the bus learnt he could make rugs, she directed him to High Street in Prahran, which has a number of rug emporiums, and he quickly found repair work.
And within two weeks the word was out. "Everyone had heard about that repair man from Afghanistan," he laughs. "Many rug dealers rang me to say, ‘Please come and work for me.' I was so lucky. I didn't have much competition."
He went on to work with carpet and rug manufacturer Customweave, before friends helped him open his own business, Afghan Traditional Rugs, in 2002. He sells all manner of rugs from Afghanistan and India, and carries out repairs sent to him from around the country.
Business is going well. "When Australian people come in and know I am a refugee they love to buy from me," he says, with a mixture of pride and shyness. "Now I'm so busy." One customer has since become his "Australian mum". Robin Bourke, a retired teacher from East Hawthorn, was looking for a cushion cover but ended up with a new student. Now Mazari visits Bourke and her husband on Thursday nights for a meal and an English lesson.
"Najaf has shown me first hand what courage is," says Bourke, 68. "He's a great optimist who has faith in human nature, although he's seen some pretty ugly sights. His friendship gives us a lot back, it enriches life."
Mazari's life has been enriched since he was granted permanent residency in July. But his struggle isn't over. His wife and three-year-old daughter remain in Afghanistan and he regularly sends money to them and other family members.
He acknowledges the difficulty of such a situation. "But what can I do? Better I support from here. When I was over there, always I was persecuted and my wife was not happy." Does he hope to bring his family to Australia? "If Australia gives us this opportunity, I'm happy to," he answers quietly. "Here is a peaceful country."
Article first appeared in Herald-Sun Magazine