Every day, Kiwis across Aotearoa tune in to their favourite breakfast shows for a spot of early morning talk-back with a side of daily news. One journalist who frequents our TV screens during the wee hours is none other than Aziz Al Sa'afin, a young man who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo and speak up about some of the world’s most important issues.

Aziz is a talented broadcaster whose refugee background and multicultural upbringing have had a direct impact on his approach to reporting. His compassion for his community and evident storytelling ability has allowed him to pursue his passion for journalism, while simultaneously advocating for diversity and inclusion where it really matters.

This is his story.

The journey home

On a typical weekday morning, Aziz can be found talking about everything from breaking news to social media snippets on The AM Show. Many of the conversations he instigates during these segments hark back to his childhood and personal journey to Aotearoa as a refugee.

Born in 1989 in Kuwait, Aziz and his family were caught in the crossfire of war when Iraqi military troops entered the country. His family immediately went into hiding in their bunker underneath their house, but things took a turn for the worse when his mum became a target: she’d had a comfortable job working at the Lebanese Embassy, and now, as a result of the conflict, she and her family were no longer safe.

“My mum explained to me that everyone went into hiding – it was a war zone,” says Aziz. “There was no food, no clothing. My uncles would go out to scavenge for food and clothes while we were hiding. I spent the first 18 months of my life in a bunker, hiding.”

“I never knew what was going on, I was very protected in that sense. All power to my mother for that. She protected my experience from the war and made it look normal.”

With the support of the United States Government, Aziz’s family was able to eventually escape Kuwait, but they were kept in the dark about their destination until they finally set foot in New Zealand where they were offered refugee resettlement.

“We were so happy to be here, it didn’t matter where we were, we were safe,” he says.

Those early days in Aotearoa were not easy for the Al Sa’afin family, who had little money and were frequently moved from one social house to another. There were several occasions on which they were forced to sleep rough.

“As my mum said, we escaped one war and we found ourselves fighting another one here. It was a different kind of war, but it was a war nonetheless, fighting for a better life,” explains Aziz.

Aziz recalls sleeping at the train station, thinking the pet shop was the zoo, (they couldn’t afford to go to the ‘real’ zoo), and purchasing second-hand school uniforms. He didn’t realise what all this meant at the time – poverty was an unknown concept. His eyes light up when he talks about the role his mother played in protecting him from the harsh realities around them.

“Mum made my life a bit of an adventure, it was a journey every day, so, I never really realised the severity of our social status and where we came from – not until I was really old enough to understand.”

Fitting in with other kids was something Aziz struggled with throughout his childhood. He felt ashamed of his culture and his past, so he tried to hide his background in order to ‘blend in’.

“I grew up thinking I should be embarrassed about my culture and hide my identity,” he says. “I was scared of talking about my culture at school, especially after 9/11.”

“Then, as a teenager, I grew out of that and learned not to care about what anyone else thought. And the more I achieved at school, the more leadership opportunities I got, and, in those moments, I quickly realised the importance of representation. As those ideas started to form in my mind, I became myself and understood the importance of being myself.”

The perfect role

Aziz’s career pathway to journalism is not altogether surprising. Ever-curious and always charming, he grew up asking a lot of questions. About everything. He has always loved listening to people and talking to them about their stories, which are two key attributes that any good journalist needs.

“I was fired from my first job at McDonald’s because I talked too much to the customers,” he laughs. “I came home crying because I got fired, so, my mum told me to go find a job that allowed me to talk to people.”

Another thing that inspired Aziz to move into the media space was the understanding growing up that very few people looked like him on television. He wanted to change that.

“One of my biggest drivers is to be a voice for people who can’t be heard, and be a representation for those who don’t see themselves on screen. I was in that position as a kid and I know how important it would have been for me growing up. So, this drives what I do every day.”

Aziz has become a well-known broadcaster on national television in Aotearoa, a role he doesn’t take lightly. He tries to go beyond the surface-level when reporting on important issues, particularly those that might affect younger people who come from a diverse background.

Aziz Al Sa’afin, COVID-19 essential worker.

I remember how ashamed I felt of my background, and how I felt about people judging me, so, if I can now be in a position where I can inspire and empower a little person like me – back in the day – to not be ashamed of who they are and where they come from, that’s a really special thing and a really important responsibility.”

“Now, in the position that I find myself in, because I believe in the person that I am, I am proud of where I’ve come from. I am a proud refugee.”

“My hope for the future is to still be able to be a voice for those who can’t share theirs, and put their issues at the forefront of mainstream media and be their champion.”

Helping Kiwis get through

During disasters, people turn to the media to receive vital updates from officials and experts. Journalists play a key role in sharing important safety messages and providing impartial reporting throughout the situation.

During a global health emergency, their responsibility is no different. At COVID-19 Alert Level 3 and 4 lockdowns in Aotearoa, journalists were deemed essential workers – including Aziz, who did more than simply provide information, he helped Kiwis get through an incredibly unsettling time.

“I didn’t realise the importance of what I was doing during lockdown, not until many months later,” he shares.

“A number of people have come up to me to say how important it was for them to be tuning in to the show every day during lockdown. To watch me having a laugh made them laugh, and that was an important part of their day. I never truly understood the gravity of that until a very long time after – how important it was for people to just laugh because of some videos or jokes I was making on TV.”

During the nationwide lockdown, Aziz built a studio in his bedroom. He set up a camera and lights to go live every morning, and conducted his research ahead of the show there. When Aucklanders were asked to into to lockdown again, Aziz was broadcasting from the field, including outside COVID-19 testing stations.

“It was an intense time. Our job as broadcasters was to keep people company in one of the hardest times in their life.”

“I didn’t think much about the risks at the time,” he laughs. “I was more worried about my performance on air!”

“I had to disseminate important information, which is the other part of the puzzle. Whilst I was there to entertain people, part of my job was also being a public service broadcaster. We were there to disseminate the right information. There was so much information online, so we were the truth-tellers. We were there to inform people on what to do and how to do it. It was a big responsibility.”

This responsibility will keep being of the utmost importance as Aotearoa rolls out its vaccination campaign over the coming months.

“There is a lot of misinformation around the vaccine at the moment,” he says. “I definitely recognise how important it is to tell people the right information.”

Essential Kiwi Legends

Ahead of World Refugee Day on 20 June, New Zealand Red Cross, as the primary provider of community refugee settlement in Aotearoa, is celebrating the important contribution made during COVID-19 Alert Level changes from essential workers with a refugee background. Find out more about the Essential Kiwi Legends campaign.   

“I think what Red Cross does is so important – they are drivers of change themselves. It’s an organisation that is changing lives and creating opportunities for those who don’t have it and giving them a new sense in life,” says Aziz at the end of the conversation.