Raised by Refugees brings my immigrant childhood to life, with even more laughs

For Afghan-New Zealander Abbas Nazari, the new comedy Pax Assadi brings back memories of his own family life in the early 2000s.

I’m often asked what it’s like to be a refugee and to be honest, I’ve never had a clear answer. I tried to answer that exact question in my book, After The Tampa: from Afghanistan to New Zealand.

Raised by Refugees, written and directed by comedian Pax Assadi, brilliantly answers this question.

You may know Assadi as a stand-up comedian; he’s a familiar face from his regular appearances on 7 Days and The Project. Now Assadi, who was born in New Zealand to Iranian parents who arrived as refugees in New Zealand in the 1980s, has his own show. Raised By Refugees is clearly a labor of love, with Assadi telling an interviewer that he had “never put so much heart, soul and blood, sweat and tears into anything before”.

Set on the north coast of Auckland at the start of the new millennium, Raised by Refugees revolves around the Assadi family – Iranian father Afnan (Assadi), mother Safia (Kalyani Nagarajan) who is Pakistani and their sons Pax (Kenus Binu) and Mahan (Adam Lobo) who were born in New Zealand. The first episode sees Afnan starting work as a vacuum cleaner salesman, young Pax nervously arriving for his first day at middle school, and Safia worrying about cooking Persian food for her Iranian in-laws. If that wasn’t enough, the September 11 attacks brought an additional layer of complexity to their lives.

Afnan (Pax Assadi) and Pax (Kenus Binu) (Photo: Sky TV/Supplied)

Although his perspective is unusual in New Zealand, Assadi’s storytelling in Raised by Refugees will resonate with people from all walks of life. It’s an authentic and humorous take on the refugee and immigrant experience, a tangled mix of personal stories and insightful observations that will have you laughing every step of the way. Watching the show, I saw myself and my own refugee family in many scenes. The series’ attention to detail is meticulous, from the dates and naan bread on the breakfast table, to the traditional music playing in the background, to the often tense dynamics of an interracial marriage.

But this show isn’t just for refugees – there’s something for everyone here. Assadi artfully tells the story of a Kiwi child growing up on the North Shore, encountering puberty, the challenges of making friends at a new school, trying to impress his crush, and all the while navigating his identity and his mixed heritage.

In Raised by Refugees, I saw myself in many scenes. Like young Pax, I grew up a happy and lucky Afghan-Kiwi, running carefree around the world among the other boys at Riccarton Primary School in Christchurch. We had arrived in New Zealand in the weeks following 9/11, having been rescued by the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa. Much like young Pax moving to Auckland, we navigated our new world in Christchurch, often living in the space between old and new.

Perhaps the strongest parallel to the Pax story is that I distinctly remember my brother Ali claiming to be Tongan, just like both the real Pax and his fictional alter ego. In Ali’s case, it wasn’t because of terrorist teasing, but mostly because Tongan kids, especially one named Richie Mo’unga, were the coolest kids in school.

Scene-stealing younger brother Mahan (Adam Lobo) (Picture: Sky TV/Supplied)

My favorite character in the series is Pax’s father, Afnan, played by Pax Assadi himself. Afnan reminds me so much of my own father. Learning the nuances of the English language and getting her kids out of school while working two jobs, while ensuring her family maintained their cultural identity – all of this was so familiar to me from my own childhood in Christchurch.

New Zealand is rapidly becoming more diverse and it is refreshing to watch a quintessentially Kiwi story that reflects this new Kiwi experience. Like all great comedians, Assadi is able to inject laughter into the most serious scenes. Case in point: when the breaking news alert shows the 9/11 attacks, the silence and shock of the tragedy is interrupted by younger brother Mahan (Adam Lobo) who insists on changing the channel because his favorite game show just came from to start.

Growing up, two of my favorite shows were Bro’Town and Everybody Hates Chris, which ran 32 and 88 episodes respectively. I’ve probably watched all of them. There are only six episodes of Raised by Refugees so far, but I hope it works again and again. There are still plenty of laughs to be had.

Abbas Nazari is the author of the bestseller After The Tampa: From Afghanistan to New Zealand (Allen and Unwin, 2021), available in all good bookstores.

Raised by Refugees begins tonight, Thursday February 24 at 8:45 p.m. on Prime, before becoming available to stream on Neon and Sky Go

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