Playing Favourites with comedian Pax Assadi

From Saturday Morning, 11:09 am on 5 March 2022

Pax Assadi doesn't shy away from the realities of immigrant family life in his new series, Raised by Refugees which is based on the comedian's own childhood in early-2000s Auckland.

Pax Assadi and Kenus Binu in the TV series Raised by Refugees

Pax Assadi and Kenus Binu in the TV series Raised by Refugees Photo: Prime

In Raised by Refugees, Pax takes on the role of his own father Afnan - a former Iranian refugee and "one of the nicest men you'll ever meet".

As a young man, Afnan fled to Pakistan where he met Pax's mother Safia, and the couple moved to New Zealand three years later.

Arriving with just $207 in his pocket, Afnan swiftly became the "classic immigrant dad workaholic that just needs to be out doing things and making money constantly", Pax says.

Now, after 30-something years here, his father seems to feel at home in Kiwi culture.

"He's an avid fly fisherman, he drives a Hilux, he says 'mate' every fourth sentence with his Iranian accent, you know? He loves New Zealand with all his heart."

Many immigrants like Afnan feel a strong desire to "achieve whatever it takes to be seen as a fruitful member of society", Pax says.

Although it's easier said than done, he hopes Raised by Refugees will show people like his dad they don't have to take on this burden.

"You don't have to achieve amazing things to prove that you deserve to be here. As long as you're a good person that contributes to society, that's enough. Just like that's enough for everybody else."

Comedian Pax Assadi as a child with his father Afnan and mother Safia

Comedian Pax Assadi as a child with his father Afnan and mother Safia Photo: Pax Assadi / Facebook

Most of what happens to Afnan, his wife Safia and their son Pax in Raised by Refugees is based on the real-life experiences of the Assadi family, Pax says.

Some details are exaggerated and some chronological license is taken, but many moments are presented just as they occurred.

In the show, Pax's dad Afnan is accused of being a terrorist in his workplace by an unhappy customer, who yells it across the shop for everyone to hear. Pax says he saw the incident occur in real life when he was 16, not 12 as depicted in the show.

"I saw a man screaming in the shop to not buy anything from [my father] 'cause he' a terrorist."

Raised by Refugees was made for the many people who share Pax's experience of being a first-generation immigrant living in two worlds.

"What's really hard about it is you don't fit in fully with either of them, especially when you're 12 years old… you're just floundering, trying to fit into one or the other."

As a South Asian-Middle Eastern kid, Pax didn't see any representations of people who looked like him and seemed cool.

"I was a scared vulnerable kid who put on this African-American persona to hide all his insecurities."

The boy who plays Pax's younger self is 13-year-old Kenus Binu whose lack of acting experience makes him a very honest performer, Pax says.

After auditioning over 200 children to play the young Pax, he and his wife encountered Kenus when they were seated behind him at a screening of Wonder Woman 1984.

"[Kenus] starts doing jokes that made us laugh and he was speaking quite loudly. And I'm thinking to myself 'this kid is going to annoy this whole theatre' but to my surprise, he doesn't. He actually makes everyone in the theatre laugh… he's treating it like a comedy gig and he's killing."

Raised by Refugees airs Thursday nights on Prime, and the whole series is available to watch on Neon.