Career

The AM Show reporter whose childhood began with hiding from Saddam Hussein

''It was terrible. You are scared Saddam Hussein’s soldiers will come and shoot you. They did that to many people.''

By Amy Prebble

For the first 18 months of his life, Three's breakfast show's Aziz Al-Sa'afin lived hidden in a bunker. His mother Sabah worked for the Lebanese Embassy in Kuwait and was one of the many officials targeted by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.

"On August 2, 1990, about 4am, I got a knock on my door," recalls Sabah. "It was a guy who worked with me at the embassy. He said Saddam Hussein was inside Kuwait. All of our lives were turned upside down. They gave us one month and then we had to move to Baghdad. But I refused because Kuwait is Kuwait, not Iraq. So we hid in the house."

Aziz and his family lived in the bunker beneath their family home and his uncles only ventured out for supplies when it was absolutely necessary. He only has a few memories of this time, but says his mother managed to make it bearable.

"Mum used to hide all that bad stuff from us," explains Aziz (28). "In our family, we call her the magician. She just casts a spell and regardless of how bad it was, to us it never really seemed that bad. I've only since realised what we went through."

Sabah (66) confirms she was terrified, despite the brave face she put on for her kids. "It was terrible. You are scared Saddam Hussein's soldiers will come and shoot you. They did that to many people."

She made the decision to leave Kuwait because she was scared for Aziz and his brother Fawaz (39).

"I didn't want them to suffer what I had suffered. After the war, Kuwait was not the same and there was the threat Saddam Hussein would return. I wanted to give my kids a better life."

She'd heard good things about New Zealand and was grateful for the opportunity to start a new life here.

"When I arrived at Auckland airport, it was so small, I wondered what I had done," says Sabah. "But all the people working at the airport were smiling. They welcomed us to the country. I loved it. I could finally breathe."

For then-four-year-old Aziz, the move to NZ was exciting.

"When we first came, the Mangere refugee centre wasn't around," he tells. "There was a version of it the government helped out with. It was a support system, but it wasn't enough. We had nights when we were homeless. But it was a massive adventure for me."

The move was tougher for his then 15-year-old brother, who had to give up his friends and learn to speak English while attending Auckland's Selwyn College.

"He was very lost," says Aziz. "It must have been hard for Mum because here she was raising her son who she could see before her eyes already becoming a Kiwi, while his brother was finding it so tough. My family used me as a way to learn how to be Kiwi and to speak English."

Fawaz is now a successful entrepreneur and a father of five. Sabah has also found her feet. The former journalist has worked for Air New Zealand for the past 11 years. She got her forklift licence and drives around the tarmac of the airport where she first felt so welcomed.

Sabah encouraged Aziz to follow his dreams and he realised very early on that his favourite thing to do is talk.

"I always used to get in trouble at school for talking. Then I realised talking was my calling."

Aziz graduated from broadcasting school to work for Three's Newshub and is currently the social media presenter for The AM Show, with Duncan Garner, Amanda Gillies and Mark Richardson.

The role is Aziz's dream job.

"You have to have a reason for getting up at 3am every day. I've been doing it for four and a half years now. I get to talk about the issues that I feel passionate about. I get to speak for the people that don't have a voice."

The journalist hasn't been scared to head into the fray in public debates either. When Duncan defended Aussie rugby star Israel Folau's right to make comments that suggested gay people were destined for hell, Aziz swiftly disagreed.

He says, "We live in this beautiful country where there are people of all different colours, cultures, religions, sexualities, and all of a sudden I saw it threatened. When Winston Peters was talking about refugees, I spoke up too. I've found my confidence with this job and every day I learn more about myself."

Sabah is very proud of her outspoken son.

"After every show, I text him. He does a good job, an amazing job."

And the feeling is mutual.

"My dad was not a part of my life and that was for the better because Mum is my best friend. She's amazing."

read more from