A Home For the Boys

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Javid's shaky elbow and his partner's lazy eye make them a perfect pair of pool flukes. Through a little lip and a lot of luck, the two have controlled the table for an hour at the hostel. They can't sink a ball until their opponents are down to the ultimate 8-ball. And then Javid's playing mantra kicks in. "One shot/ One oppor - tunity/ Af - ghani comm - unity." Two years ago he was a shepherd, alone with his flock and flute in the Hindu Kush of northern Afghanistan; he'd never attended school, seen a film or heard of New Zealand. Now, in the outer suburbs south of Auckland, Javid, 16, need not fear the Taliban or a lone wolf mauling his sheep. In a bright orange hooded jacket, channeling Eminem, he's lost in the moment and knocking the black ball into a side pocket.

It looks like any boys' boarding school. Well-fed, keen-eyed guys in their late teens are watching amply stacked young women in music videos. A few boys just in from soccer training eat a late dinner of chicken, chips, bread and salad in the TV lounge. Once in a while there's an excited uproar from the small adjoining room that contains the pool table. "Excuse me, Mr. Tom," says Javid, passing the cue. "It's your turn, please." A mist rises into the cool night from the shower block, while tucked away in a warren of rooms the quieter lads are doing their homework or chatting online. What is different about this home for boys, where three dozen Afghani wards of the country's Family Court reside, is that on every face there is a smile for a stranger; a "Hello" or "Nice to meet you" soon comes with a loose grip from a soft hand. Most ask "Have you eaten?" or "Would you like some tea?" And soon you feel a lightness as you catch their spirit of thoughtful humility, cheeky exuberance or affection, depending on the hour, the mood or how much they trust you. The light is low, the décor is gloomy, but the people here are bright.

Most adult Australians and New Zealanders will recall the August 2001 incident when 438 people were rescued from a sinking boat by the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa in the Indian Ocean. Almost all of them were from Afghanistan. Seeking asylum, they were refused entry to Australia by the government of John Howard. After a diplomatic stalemate on the high seas, New Zealand agreed to take as many of the Tampa refugees as it could, initially accepting 150 people: members of family groups, women with children, and 40 unaccompanied boys under 18.

Dari-speaking, the boys are ethnic Hazaras, a vulnerable minority in Afghanistan; most have Asiatic features, high cheekbones and striking eyes. Under the Taliban regime, many of them saw their schools closed; some lost fathers and older brothers in a land where armed conflict and disappearances were common. A few witnessed the murder of family members. There was a way out of this terrible life: for around $5,000 an agent could arrange to smuggle a teenage boy into Australia. Hussain, now 19, thick-set and quietly spoken, describes the journey from his home in Bamian, in the central highlands, to Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and finally Indonesia, where he and others waited for a boat. In the early hours of August 23, the overladen Palapa, a 20-m fishing boat, headed out of Pantau, a tiny port in southwestern Java, for what should have been a 36-hour crossing to the territory of Christmas Island. Hussain shakes his head and repeatedly says "very bad" or "terrible" as he recalls the next month at sea. He remembers gasping for air amid diesel fumes, and the panic when the little boat was sinking. Tampa Captain Arne Rinnan is a hero, he says. "Why didn't John Howard let us come?" When the men, women and children were transferred to the Australian Navy vessel Manoora for the voyage to Nauru, he recalls, there was too much chili in the food, and people were constantly crying, screaming or being sick.

Five weeks after their ordeal at sea began, Hussain and 39 other Afghani boys arrived in Auckland for immigration processing and a settling-in period at Mangere refugee center. Julie Sutherland is a service delivery manager for Child, Youth and Family Services in neighboring Otahuhu. She was at the airport when they arrived and sat in on interviews with the boys, who looked bedraggled, malnourished and prematurely aged. One of the younger boys hardly stopped crying in the early days; when they went to sleep in the detention center, others would wail and whimper. A few felt rejected by their parents. "Why did my family send me away? Was I that bad a son?" one boy asked Sutherland. Some felt unworthy of the safety and security they had found. Others were grief-stricken when they were told about a boat carrying asylum seekers that sank en route to Christmas Island; 353 people are believed to have drowned.

On the evenings when Sutherland visits the hostel, there's a chorus of "Hello, Julie" in a mix of pitches and accents; some voices, like Safar Ali Sahar's ("Call me Sas"), are indistinguishable from that of a Kiwi-born teenager. Soon there's a flurry of forms, bank statements, bills and homework assignments coming at her. In her professional capacity - but mainly in her own time - Sutherland has become, she says, the boys' "confidante, driver, counselor, stylist, shopper, tutor, cheerleader, mother, sister, aunt and friend." Tonight, Fayyaz is asking for help filling in a U.S. visa application; he's won a scholarship to attend the Global Young Leaders Youth Forum in Washington during the July school holidays. Later, he asks Sutherland to listen to him practice a soliloquy from Hamlet for a school English assessment. What Sutherland and her colleagues have done with the boys is "like tending exotic plants in a greenhouse. With the right input, conditions and the right supports they will, and have, blossomed like exotic flowers," she says. "Flowers with attitude."

The boys exude charisma; there's warmth, gentleness and openness, a respect for others and a strong sense of justice. Some are earnest, others are glib, but they all want to show their gratitude to the many teachers, mentors, coaches, carers, helpers and clinicians who have got them this far, so soon. "They want to be the best they can be," says Sutherland, to honor individual kindness and the benevolence of the state. They can be goofy and clueless about the most mundane things, then knock you out with their worldly wisdom and resilience. Most of them miss the physical intimacy of family; a nice hug every now and then would make a great difference. Where do you go for that? While some come from the same provinces or cities, these sons of merchants, tailors, farmers and Northern Alliance fighters did not know one another until they found themselves squashed together on the doomed Palapa. Seeing them now, you sense you're witnessing the start of a lifelong brotherhood. "It's like a big family," says Sutherland, "with every permutation of personality and need imaginable." She and others have made it their mission to keep the boys together for as long as possible; the hostel has become the focal point for the city's small Hazara community, of which the boys will one day be the custodians.

If good fortune brought the boys Captain Rinnan, Prime Minister Helen Clark and Julie Sutherland, it also delivered school principal Carol White, refugee coordinator Judy Morgan and a team of teachers, counselors and health workers at Selwyn College. The multicultural Kohimarama school, in Auckland's prosperous eastern suburbs, has become a haven for refugees from Kosovo, Burma and Afghanistan. The boys commenced their studies - some for the first time - at the start of 2002. They were divided into three groups according to English competency; trauma and anxiety issues were addressed, as were gaps in their learning. Others in the school community welcomed the boys to their homes to experience Kiwi family life. The better students are now doing mainstream subjects. "Some of them are clearly university material," says White, adding she would not dare to think of limits for some of the younger Afghani students. "Although they are identified as a group," says Morgan, "they are just as diverse in their interests, abilities, successes and failures as any other group of students." The boys are making new friends. "Most of them love to talk and they are not daunted by using a new language," says Morgan. Still, for some, school is a holding pattern; they attend irregularly, and paid work beckons.

The boys are eligible to receive a weekly benefit of $NZ130; they can earn another $NZ80 and then their payment is progressively wound back. Most have part-time jobs in supermarkets and food outlets that pay around $NZ10 an hour. Some send money back to their families. But a score of small, cheap Japanese coupes in the hostel's car park confirms that wheels - and getting a driver's license - play a big part in their aspirations. Abdul works as a café kitchen-hand; he's an able student and eventually hopes to pursue dentistry or general practice. He's on to his fourth car, and one day after school is helping his roommate Ezzatullah to complete the registration for a red Honda Prelude that he bought for $NZ3,900 at a local car fair. How do they do it? Some of the guys have generous parents. Most, however, have learned the value of pooling resources. Eight boys put equal shares into a pot and their names into a hat; the winner takes all the money, but over time the informal lottery will see each participant recoup his outlay.

Making contact with family - in their homeland or finding lost relatives in refugee camps in Pakistan or Iran - was a key step for many of the boys. Most have now established links and are eager to share their news of school, soccer or part-time jobs. Seyed, a rangy 19-year-old slave to fashion, flicks through a pile of escalating phone bills: "I miss my family very much." Sadeq, who has adorned his bedroom with bright carpets, is organizing parties to celebrate his engagement; he hopes to bring Khedicha, his fiancée, to Auckland if he gains citizenship (the boys will be eligible for New Zealand passports next year). Some of the boys have been away from their families for more than two years and have found it difficult to accept that some things have changed. One, whose father was killed, learned that his mother is remarried - to a man who already has a wife and children; so far, there is little prospect of a reunion. Another boy has discovered that the girl he expected to marry has wed someone else. Some, however, are preparing for a new role as the mainstay of their family if relatives follow them here - responsible for schooling younger siblings or supporting parents who cannot speak English.

Those family members will be surprised at the changes in these young men. Jafari's thick "Winnie the Pooh" photo album documents a life on the go - tourist spots, meeting the P.M., farewells. Appearance and attitudes are rapidly taking shape. Salman, who has an earring, and Jawad have experimented with hair dye; Kiwi-sounding Sas gels his hair like David Beckham; Javid is unrecognizable as the newcomer whose first pair of jeans sat dangerously close to his armpits; Hussain loves Jackie Chan action films. They were taught to swim by young women wearing bikinis. "The boys' eyes almost popped out," says Sutherland. At the weekend, they usually head to town in small groups for cinemas, nightclubs, shopping malls - the kinds of places where you might meet girls. During school holidays, they go to local beaches or further afield on sightseeing trips. All the while, they want to be good Muslims; observing the fasts, prayers and traditions of Islam is a mark of pride for them.

So, too, is soccer, which gives them another outlet for their energy, competitiveness and creativity. About 16 boys are in the two senior Selwyn College teams. In spite of their inexperience, coach Keir Morrison marvels at their talent and instincts. Sadeq recalls the dust and rubble of Afghanistan, where boys would mark out a playing area and fashion a ball of sorts from rags and rubbish. On this bleak Saturday, he's in Selwyn College's green First XI strip, striding across the lush playing fields of Kings College for a 10 a.m. kick-off. The wind is against Selwyn and the tall, burly lads of Kings are playing the long-ball game to great effect; at half-time, despite having virtually all the scoring chances, Selwyn are down 2-0. After the break, Sadeq wins the ball, crossing it perfectly to Assadullah, who heads it into the goal. Fayyaz is fouled and he nets a penalty; it's all square. The Kings' boys are physical and scrappy; Salman is cut down in an ugly encounter and bounces back to square up to an opponent who is 30 cm taller. Referee Morrison steps into the skirmish of fists, cautions the players and orders them to shake hands. They do, but Salman crouches lower and gives the Kings lug an unexpected hug before springing back to play. Whatever the score, Salman's still on an adventure where you embrace both the ups and downs.

The day is coming when the hostel will have served its purpose. During the past six months, Sutherland and her department have been helping the boys plan for independence; a number will turn 20 next year and will no longer be state wards. When they first came, many were paralyzed in the face of simple choices, as they were used to their parents making all their decisions. They've been taught the skills not only to survive but to thrive, says Sutherland, who feels blessed by the gift of this experience with them. "They know who to ask and where to go for help. They know asking questions will always get them an answer." A few have already left Selwyn and won a place in a training program for work at Auckland airport. There is no guarantee, and he acknowledges mixed feelings about leaving school, but Amir hopes it will lead to a permanent job. Fayyaz is off to America this week. The boys are on the move and breaking free. Whatever they do, they now have a safe home and a chance to explore more than one course.