Nabi Baqiri is paying for a tractor part and chainsaw to use in his Shepparton orchard. The former refugee hands over a cheque and asked the sales assistant to fill in the date and transaction amount.
“I don’t know how to write,” he explains.
“Don’t joke with me. I don’t have time,” the sales assistant replies, coolly.
Nabi persists: “No really, I don’t know how to write.”
As Australia grapples with the morality of offshore detention of asylum seekers and wrestles with fears of being overwhelmed by needy refugees, this is the story of how an illiterate Afghan boy ended up as an Australian fruit-picking millionaire.
It’s the start of the harvest season and Kaarimba orchard, north of Melbourne, hums to the sound of heavy machinery.
A fleet of cherry pickers and tractors is parked at reception and beyond that, a seemingly infinite criss-cross of vegetation. At 182 hectares, the property is big, even by Goulburn Valley standards. But Kaarimba is known less for its size than the identity of its co-owner, Nabi Baqiri, a former Nauru detainee from Afghanistan.
The manager warns me against looking for Baqiri; “Too many hiding spots,” he says.
But I drive along the unsealed roads nonetheless, until I see Baqiri’s ute parked beside the cherry orchard.
He is a few metres away, ensconced in a row of trees. Fortyish, slight, moustachioed and dressed in a heavy cotton shirt and polar tech vest, Baqiri is indistinguishable from the other pickers and absorbed in the same labours.
Reaching into a thicket, he pulls out bunches of ruby-red cherries and places them in a plastic bucket. Before buying Kaarimba, valued at $10 million, Baqiri earned a living as a fruit picker. And on occasion, he reverts to his earlier occupation.
“Picking is an old habit,” he says. Later, Baqiri back into boss-mode, roves the orchard, slipping effortlessly between Hazaragi, his mother tongue, and English as he guides the pickers.
When a tractor towing three wooden pallets of cherries pulls up, Baqiri paws the fruit. “Fantastic,”he gushes. “No one can do better than that.”
During the harvest, Kaarimba employs 40 staff and it’s Baqiri’s job to manage them and oversee operations. He leaves marketing to co-owner Gerard Alampi. Such responsibilities are beyond his comfort level; Baqiri is illiterate, having never learnt to read or write in English or Hazaragi.
Baqiri was born in Saibaghal, a village populated by the Hazara ethnic minority, in the central province of Uruzgan. When he maps out his past, it’s by the risks he took. He was acquainted with the people-smuggling trade long before he arranged passage to Christmas Island.
Insubordination, he believes, was inherent to his nature. He truanted his way through primary school and improvised when his parents asked him to read aloud, safe in the knowledge that they were no more literate than he was.
Aged 13, Baqiri took off with his elder brother, Jamshed, in search of work in Iran.
The boys walked for two days to Ghazni then crossed the Pakistan border by tractor with a people smuggler. When they arrived in the frontier city of Quetta late at night, Baqiri pointed to a street light. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Electricity,” his brother Jamshed replied. The boys attempted to cross the Iranian frontier unaccompanied, but turned back when they realised it was patrolled. They tried a second time, with a people smuggler, and were captured, beaten, imprisoned and returned to Pakistan.
On their third go, they made it. For the next 15 years, Baqiri travelled between Iran and Pakistan, before finally settling in Quetta. In the garment business, he made $300,000 in four years, but saw no future in Pakistan.
Living on false documents, he was not entitled to own property and most of his travel was in the company of people smugglers. When his neighbour was executed for a motorbike, Baqiri made arrangements to travel to Australia.
“Even if I made a billion dollars, I couldn’t have lived well,” he says. In early 2001, Baqiri flew, with his wife and four children, to Indonesia. He applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and was granted it, but when a UNHCR official urged him to wait to be resettled, he ignored the counsel.
He had put his faith in a people smuggler, who promised that the voyage to Christmas Island would take 12 hours on a boat equipped with a navigation system. Contrary to the pledge, the family spent 11 days at sea on a crude wooden fishing boat.
The voyage still gives Baqiri nightmares. In Australian waters, the vessel burst into flames. Two people died in the disaster and two of his children lost consciousness in the water.
On Nauru, Baqiri lived under a haze of anti-depressants. He took to sleeping through the morning and playing cards until late at night.
He joined other men in a hunger strike and held out for 27 days before losing consciousness. Baqiri was angry at himself for putting his family at risk and dwelled on a scenario in which he had heeded the UNHCR warning and lived freely in Indonesia on savings.
Such a fate would have been preferable to the purgatory of not knowing if or when he’d ever be released. One afternoon, during his third year on Nauru, a guard called out his number – 83 – and Baqiri was told that he and his family would fly to Australia at 11am the following day.
The euphoria of freedom only hit him a week later, grocery shopping with his wife in Dandenong. “There was such happiness in doing something as simple as buying food,” Baqiri says.
The ensuing years were consumed by hard work. When Baqiri couldn’t find a job in Melbourne, he settled in Shepparton, where there was plenty of work in the orchards. He worked double shifts, relying on over-the-counter painkillers to ease his backache.
He had set his sights on a house and a family holiday. In 2009, Baqiri gave up manual labour to start a business contracting orchard workers. His service attracted Alampi, who was looking for a co-investor for Kaarimba.
Alampi, who owned a packing shed and five other orchards, knew the challenges of sourcing labour and felt that Baqiri could help out. “He always had good staff. A lot of people like working for him. If you did the right thing you’d be rewarded,” Alampi said.
Alampi, 32, met Baqiri in person for the first time in mid-2013. There was something about his would-be business partner that reminded Alampi of his late father, Sam Alampi.
“My father was a gentleman. Everyone liked him. He was good to do business with. He had good vision and was polite and respected people. Nabi was like that …quite gentle and a great businessman.”
Like Baqiri, Sam Alampi was an immigrant. Having settled from Sicily in the 1960s, he spoke only basic English and could neither read nor write in the language.
As it happened, Baqiri and Alampi picked an inopportune time to invest. SPC was in penury and farmers in the Goulburn Valley resorted to setting fire to trees laden with rotten fruit.
When applying for a loan, Alampi argued that Kaarimba would grow fresh produce unsuitable for canning. But the banks denied the application and the business partners were forced to borrow from a high-interest bridging financier. They paid $1500 per day to service the loan, until a bank finally agreed to finance Kaarimba – five months after purchase.
Recalling his reversal of fortunes, Baqiri is not above smugness. “In my life, we do a lot of risks. We play for our lives…(With Kaarimba) I take this risk and finally I win the game.”
Baqiri’s home, on a new Shepparton housing estate, is sparsely furnished, with patterned rugs underfoot. When I visit him mid-morning, a Hindi movie plays at low volume on the television. Baqiri’s 17-year-old daughter, Rezwana, mills around the house in a monochrome salwar suit and headscarf. She has just completed Year 12 and a season playing soccer for Shepparton United.
Rezwana tells of how, growing up, her father would assemble the children in the lounge room and watch over them for 90 minutes as they studied. Baqiri listens to the description of his homework sessions, then adds: “I told them you study well and find a good job. If not, you’ll have to work in the sun, from early morning.”
The only time he ever smacked Rezwana, he says, was when he found out she was repeatedly misspelling the same words. “I hid in a cupboard,” Rezwana says, without rancour. She understood her father’s motives.
“He wants to be a role model, to show that he got from somewhere really bad to being successful. He’s pushing, showing us we have these opportunities being here.”
Baqiri no longer watches his children study and says he’s lightened up in other ways. When he first settled in Australia, the despondency that set in on Nauru lingered and he was, at times, harsh. But seeing his business and family thrive has mellowed him. Of the six Baqiri children, (additions to the family arrived in Nauru and Shepparton) three are of post-school age.
Rezwana hopes to study psychology. One of her elder sisters graduated in international studies. Another is a nursing student.
Looking back at his journey to Christmas Island, Baqiri still reproaches himself. He regrets exposing his family to danger at sea and mis-managing applications for asylum. En route to Christmas Island, he threw the family passports and UNHCR cards into the sea. With hindsight, it was a reckless measure. But at the time, he followed instinct.
Baqiri had spent decades in Iran and Pakistan evading officialdom. It was a relief to leave behind a life of obfuscation. The day he received his Australian Business Number, a bona fide recognition of his contracting company, was a joyous one. As for the holiday, Baqiri achieved that objective in 2007, when he loaded his family into the car and drove to Sydney.
During the trip, he turned to his wife and said randomly: “We got here without a people smuggler”. Then he thought to himself: “Now I am a free man.”