A Kurdish-Iranian academic living in Auckland says he was "devastated" after allegedly being labelled a criminal and told his home country is "full of shit" in a racist outburst at a tyre repair shop.
Dr Jiyar Aghapouri, a postdoctoral researcher with Middlesex University who lives on Auckland's North Shore, says he'd started to assume racism didn't exist in New Zealand after eight years without experiencing it first-hand.
But after an outburst in which he alleges he was told his native Iran was "full of hate" and that New Zealand was "my country, not yours", he's come to realise his academic background had sheltered him from the discrimination many other ethnic minorities living here have experienced.
He's come forward with his story now in the wake of the second anniversary of the Christchurch mosque shooting - a racially charged terror attack that claimed the lives of 51 people in March 2019 - to show racism is still alive and well here.
How the incident unfolded
Dr Aghapouri says he was about to head to an open home at a property in central Auckland when he discovered he had a flat tyre.
Being a Sunday, his local mechanic was closed - but he urgently needed to get it fixed in time for the viewing, so he Googled a tyre shop nearby and went there.
He says he knew something was off immediately. He said hello to the owner and was immediately greeted with a strange look which he couldn't decipher. Brushing the look off as a joke he didn't understand, he went on to ask about pricing and the range of tyres they stocked.
"While smiling, I asked him to put on a tyre that doesn't blow up after a few days or weeks, because one of my friends had experienced this before while trying the cheaper tyres," he explained.
The owner appeared to take offence, Dr Aghapouri says, and allegedly told him "it's in your f**king country that tyres blow out... in New Zealand we don't do these shitty things".
Dr Aghapouri was devastated by the comment but, determined to get his tyre replaced quickly so he could go to the open home, tried to avoid an argument.
That's despite having a lot to say on the matter. Holding a PhD in Politics and International Relations from Auckland University, and his research covering migration, diaspora, ethnicity and nationalism, Dr Aghapouri says he could have discussed the many issues in the Middle East "for hours".
But he instead just kept his temper, asked for a quote and waited for the tyre to be replaced, he said. Once the work was completed, however, the owner of the shop allegedly came back in and started making more derogatory remarks and "nonsense political comments" about the Middle East.
"He said 'you are very lucky to be in New Zealand... You know, your country is full of shit'," Dr Aghapouri recounts. "I was flabbergasted."
"I said 'you are right, unfortunately there are many issues in our region, [but] at the same time there are causes too - people everywhere are the same, you should have a deeper look at these issues'."
Dr Aghapouri says despite then asking for the bill and repeating that he was in a rush, the tyre shop owner carried on his diatribe.
"'You should be very happy to be in my country, your country is full of hate - people hate each other'," Dr Aghapouri claims he was told. "'In New Zealand we don't have any hatred... my kids don't know anything about hatred. People from your region come here and make them hateful'."
"I said 'man, I am proud to be a New Zealander and you don't have the right to say 'your country' and 'my country' - you're a New Zealander as I am. I am uncomfortable with your comments and find them a little racist'."
Dr Aghapouri says being called out for racism made the shop owner angry, and he allegedly responded by calling him a murderer and a criminal.
"I could see that things were getting very intense. I was in a rush and I just wanted to leave," he said. "He couldn't hear anything I was saying due to his rage. He called one of his staff and told him 'this f**king person is calling me a racist, he doesn't know I have a Māori wife'."
Dr Aghapouri paid the bill and warned the tyre shop owner he would sue him.
The owner allegedly replied: "Do whatever you want - this is my country, not yours."
'I'm not racist... I got different coloured kids'
Dr Aghapouri describes the experience as "shocking and horrible".
He says the alleged incident brought on one of the worst feelings he's had during his eight years living in New Zealand.
"I couldn't even speak to my wife for two days after, I didn't want to tell her what had happened - it was real deep [pain]," he said. "I didn't even view the house I wanted to - it ruined my whole day."
Even still, Dr Aghapouri isn't seeking revenge.
He spoke to Newshub on the condition the tyre shop owner not be identified, as he just wants his story to be a lesson for others and doesn't want to see the man punished or lose his livelihood due to negative media coverage.
Newshub contacted the owner, who admitted to knowing about the incident in question. However he denied doing anything wrong, and said there was "nothing racial" in his outburst.
"I've done nothing wrong with nobody," he said.
The owner also reiterated a comment he'd allegedly made to Dr Aghapouri: that he can't be racist, because his wife is of a different ethnicity.
"I'm married to a cross-cultural woman… OK? I'm not married to a white woman, I'm married to another woman. I'm not racist, one little bit. I got different coloured kids. Yeah, two different marriages. OK? So I'm not racist."
As for what he makes of Dr Aghapouri, he told Newshub: "He's got the attitude problem, not me."
'It's going to become dangerous if we don't stop it now'
Dr Aghapouri says up until the incident in early December last year, he'd been under the impression that racism wasn't a major issue in New Zealand.
He'd only experienced "minor examples" of racism before his run-in at the tyre shop - being asked where he's from when it's irrelevant, for instance, or being looked at with suspicion when buying expensive products - nothing "as egregious as what happened to me on that day".
But after speaking with other Kiwis who'd left their countries of origin to come to New Zealand, he came to realise his profession as an academic had sheltered him from the experiences of many other migrants.
"I didn't experience racism to that extent ... before this event. I really thought that New Zealand is very different," he said.
"I have been really isolated in an academic environment. I was not in contact a lot with outsiders; people in my environment were mostly educated people and [it's] a diverse environment.
"I was hearing stories from my friends in Europe, in Scandinavian countries. I was telling them, 'no, we didn't have [racism]' - but it wasn't that we didn't have it, it was that I was … just sitting in a university."
He says when he first told his migrant friends what happened to him, their first response was to try to calm him down by saying "it's not something very serious, we frequently have this experience so don't worry about it".
"It seems they have been used to this sort of behaviour, because it has repeated a lot for them," Dr Aghapouri said.
"I know my Middle Eastern community… it was more shocking when I heard from them about how these things happen every day and they are silent about it.
"It's my duty to speak about it. I don't want to personalise this case - if it was only my personal issue, I would never speak about it. But this is a social issue, and it's going to become very dangerous if we don't stop it now."
Last year, the Human Rights Commission launched its 'Racism is No Joke' campaign after a report revealed there had been a 30 percent spike in racially motivated attacks against ethnic minorities in New Zealand since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon told Newshub at the time that Kiwis don't believe racism is widespread here.
"We are kidding ourselves," he said. "Until those people that say that they aren't racist, they need to put themselves into the shoes of those people who are being abused."