An Afghani boy who was on the Tampa has just won third place in New Zealand’s national spelling bee.

In 2001 Abbas Nazari was on board a stricken fishing boat full of asylum seekers bound for Australia when the Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship rescued them and tried to take them to Australia.

Abbas was just six years old at the time, and told Crikey yesterday, he remembers the Tampa vividly. “Before the ship came all the passengers were crying out for hope. Then the Tampa came out of nowhere, some people said it was like a miracle.”

The Howard government refused to let any of what it called the “queue jumpers” onto Australian soil, but New Zealand offered asylum to around 150 of them, including Abbas and his family.

After learning English for only six years, Abbas, now 12, became the third best speller in New Zealand over the Easter weekend.

It was nerves that made Abbas stumble on the word Silhouetted – which he actually knew how to spell it – causing him to miss out on the number one spot. “My tongue slipped on the word at the end, I wouldn’t have minded if it had been a word I didn’t know how to spell.”

Despite controversy over Australia’s treatment of the Tampa refugees, Abbas told Crikey he doesn’t hold a grudge, and says he can understand why Australia didn’t let them in.

“The whole thing occurred around 9/11, the Australian government had its reasons to not provide a refuge for us … Australia didn’t want us because they thought we were terrorists … but New Zealand listened to us and they thought we weren’t terrorist ‘n’ stuff.”

Abbas loves his new home in Christchurch, New Zealand, likes going to Burnside High School and wants to be an astronomer when he grows up.

“New Zealand is a nice place to live,” he says, “the weather’s good and you don’t expect car bombs going off.”

Peter Fray

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