15 July, 2020
Dark days lead to Kiwi life of peace – and plums
Afghan Masood Atrafi and his family escaped their strife-torn homeland before coming to New Zealand as refugees. He tells Helen Vause that despite further misfortune, they came to the right place.
One came from London and the other flew in from California to see their old friend Masood Atrafi.
The three Afghan men hadn’t seen each other for more than 37 years, not since they were locked up together in Kabul’s infamous Pul-e-Charkhi Prison – and what a reunion it was.
The visitors spent most of February with Atrafi in Bayswater, talking every day and usually late into the night, fuelled by Atrafi’s delicious Afghan cooking.
“We cried when we met and we cried plenty more when we parted,” Atrafi says.
“But it was wonderful to go through our memories, and our lives and the future. There was so much to talk about.”
Atrafi had found his two prison mates from the early 80s on Facebook, and he’s in touch with many more who are now scattered around the world.
Back then, none of the men could have imagined the incredible speed of online communication, or that Atrafi would be in New Zealand, just as feisty and passionate, but now confined to an electric wheelchair.
Looking out from his quiet corner over Philomel Reserve, Atrafi is pleased to have the chance to reminisce once again and tell something of his 59 years and what happened on the journey that brought him to New Zealand 12 years ago, with his wife Kamila and their four children.
Despite increasingly troubled times, the young Atrafi and his brothers and sisters lived a very comfortable middle-class life in Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, surrounded by family and friends. The Atrafi family was widely known through the fame of their father Hakim, who was a popular comedian on the country’s one national television channel. Their mother was a teacher, and the young Masood was drawn to a career in media.
But Atrafi, like many of his friends, was a young man of strong convictions, and alongside his first-year studies and against a backdrop of many fighting factions, he delivered political leaflets.
He was barely 21 years old when he was apprehended on the street and tossed into Pul-e-Charkhi Prison, also known as the Afghan National Detention Centre.
It was a tough, filthy, terrifying place, where life was tenuously negotiated, crammed in with 10,000 others.
“It was a dark, dark time”, recalls Atrafi. “But you have to remember it was also where they were putting all the educated people and the famous writers. In so many ways it was terrible, but I was in very good company and of course that helped us to get through. Being all in there together was a time in my life I will never forget.”
After four-and-a-half years in prison, he successfully completed his degree in journalism, and by the late 80s had his dream job working on the relatively genteel arts pages of the national daily Hewad newspaper.
His passion was (and still is) writing about Persian literature. But outside the cerebral environment of the office, fighting and violence raged and Atrafi’s family was not immune.
By the time the Taliban took power in the mid-90s, Atrafi had married Kamila and the couple had two children.
“All our lives became very dangerous, and because I had already been imprisoned I was well known. Suddenly families and friends were all disconnected from each other.
“Landlines were cut off, everything closed down. It was very hard to communicate with each other. But of course everyone wanted to get out as soon as they could find a way.”
Realising poking fun at the regime would be suicidal, Atrafi’s comedian dad quit the laughs and fled with his wife to neighbouring Pakistan. “He would have been killed for sure,” says Atrafi.
“Six months later, we had a plan and we were ready to go too.”
Although Pakistan had officially closed its border, there were still holes through which many families passed.
From Kabul, the Atrafis travelled to a spot where they could begin the trek over the mountains to a remote, relaxed section of the border.
First, they hired the transport to carry them safely through the mountain passes: “A horse for me and donkey for the girls. And they cost far more than an airline ticket,” Atrafi chuckles.
They had blue skies all the way up and over the freezing snowline, step by tedious wobbly step to freedom. The couple and their two small children rode along narrow paths, with dramatic drops on either side of them. From time to time, they’d see piles of donkey bones and the human remains below of those who’d toppled over on their way. They were beyond scared, says Atrafi, but excited to be getting away to a new life.
They made it to Pakistan, where they lived for more than a decade. Atrafi found a good job editing, and two more children were born.
But Atrafi’s parents and a sibling had already headed for New Zealand. He and his family decided to follow, so that they could be reunited, and his children could have a better life.
But the challenges ahead turned out to be right up there with fleeing over snowy mountains.
The family transited through the refugee settlement facility in Mangere and arrived in Christchurch to join Atrafi’s parents in 2009. Tragically, just a year after their arrival, Atrafi was involved in a car accident that left him with severe spinal injuries, and confined to a wheelchair.
With his wife and children still making their way in their new city, he spent a year in a spinal unit.
Just as he’d settled back home with his family, the 2011 Christchuch earthquake took its toll on their new home city.
They were not as badly affected as some: “But the roof and the walls were falling in. What a day,” he says. “But we’d already been through big earthquakes back in Pakistan.”
The family moved to Auckland, where Masood and Kamila are well and truly settled into their Bayswater neighbourhood.
The kids they are so proud of have grown up and left home.
Most nights, Atrafi is either writing or online, in touch with his internationally scattered community and hoping to travel for more reunions.
When the Flagstaff visits, the couple are chuckling at the 360 ‘likes’ his love poem to Kamila has scored overnight since he published it on Facebook.
The poem is dedicated to the wife and friend who stuck by his side through good days and bad.
Even their early romance had tough beginnings in a strict culture of arranged marriages.
“I was peeping through my kitchen curtains with my mother when I first saw Kamila. And I knew I was in love with her from that moment and that I must marry her, even though she barely noticed me. I courted her by telephone for one year before we could meet. I was persistent.”
While Kamila, a law graduate in her home country, works as a home-support worker, Masood writes and prepares their dinner.
Atrafi rarely misses his daily 10km round trip down to Devonport village. He’s also often found repairing bikes, helping to supplement the couple’s income.
And sometimes he has earned a little extra by setting up a stall in summer on Memorial Drive, selling fruit.
At first he wonders how it will sound to people back home if they hear about the learned Atrafi selling plums. But then he says, “No, it’s okay. You can write that. It is the truth. Local people know me as the plum man. Or the bike man. That’s okay.
“It is good to have the chance to talk about our life story, but there is no point in looking back. We came to the right place. It is peaceful here and the people are lovely.”
This article originally appeared in the 14 August 2020 edition of the Flagstaff. Read online here.
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