According to records, Akif Keskin was born on July 27, 1923 in Skopje, currently the capital of the largely Slavic and Orthodox-Christian republic of Macedonia.
He was known as ‘Ako.’
His family however assert that he was born in 1924 and added a year to his life in order to make him eligible to fight during World War Two.
His father Mehmet was a Muslim farmer and his mother’s name was Nurye (nee Sabit).
Very little is known about Akif Keskin’s early life except that, as part of the Islamic minority of Macedonia (and Yugoslavia), his family most certainly looked upon Turkey and Turks very favourably.
The family was Slavic but Keskin always identified himself as a Turk; when he was young, his father had remarried to an Albanian woman, and Keskin certainly spoke Albanian. An older generation of Albanian migrants to New Zealand who knew him personally insist that Keskin was essentially Albanian.
Keskin was able to register himself as a refugee with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO, a precursor of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees).
In a 1976 interview, Keskin described himself as a tannery worker in Turkey who “wasted little time after seeing a publicity film on New Zealand in an Istanbul picture theatre in 1950.”
It is understood that he fought against the Communists in the Balkans during World War Two although in what capacity is harder to establish with any accuracy.
After the 1945 victory of socialism, his family’s property was confiscated or lost and Keskin himself was branded an enemy of the people and placed on a wanted list by the communist authorities.
He escaped by walking across the border to neighbouring Greece, and his (surviving) extended family moved to Turkey in following decades.
It is believed that he changed his surname from either Nasufovic or Agaocich to Keskin at a Red Cross camp at this time.
Journey to New Zealand
In 1951, Keskin departed from the Greek port of Piraeus on board the Norwegian refugee boat the SS Goya. It arrived in Wellington on May 1 and according to the IRO roll Keskin was described as a furrier by trade.
His first job in New Zealand was with Fletcher Construction Limited in Dunedin as a plasterer. He also worked as a grid blaster at a hydro dam in Otago.
Three years later when the Internal Affairs Department held an internal review of the SS Goya refugees, Keskin was working at the freezing works at Pareora, outside Timaru.
Coincidentally, he was staying at the same boarding house where many of the resident halal slaughter men reside today, in their Halal House.
Keskin observed Ramadan when he first arrived in New Zealand and exchanged seasonal greeting cards for Eid Al Fitr with the Turkish embassy in Australia.
In 1953, he married a 24-year-old Aachen-born Roman Catholic German spinster named Maria (nee Steffans). Akif and Maria had three children: Soraya Nurye in 1955, Anafa Yusuf in 1956 and Yasmin Leila in 1960.
In 1956, Keskin opened his first restaurant on Princess Street in the Central City, most probably the first Turkish Restaurant in New Zealand. He was possibly one of the first in New Zealand to manufacture yoghurt, pizza and American style hamburgers in Dunedin.
He is recorded in the ‘Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory, Volume IV, Otago-Southland edition for 1957-58, as a proprietor living at 39 Cresswell Street.
“In 1959, the proprietor of the Dunedin Istanbul restaurant, and a Bosnian, Adem Ferkatovich, attended the ceremony and laid a wreath on behalf of the Turkish community. This was the beginning of 17 years of association by Keskin with Dunedin Anzac Day and the local Returned Services’ Association (RSA).”
The Otago Daily Times reported in 1959: “Mr Akif Keskin, Turkish proprietor of the Istanbul Restaurant, demonstrated yesterday that enmity between Turks and New Zealanders is a thing of the past. A score of Gallipoli veterans as well as the Mayor T K S Sidey, and F J Gray, of the RSA, sat down at his table for a specially prepared Turkish lunch. The Turkish flag and Union Jack hung side by side above the gathering, and a floral wreath depicting a crescent moon and five-pointed star carried the words: ‘Peace and Goodwill to all Nations on behalf of the Turkish Government.’
Over the next two decades, Keskin regularly hosted the Gallipoli veterans, then RSA members for dinner every Anzac Day at his restaurant.
In 1961, the Otago Daily Times enthused: “Thanks to a ‘magic carpet’ provided by a Turkish restaurant proprietor, 10 Dunedin Gallipoli veterans spent the evenings of Anzac Day in authentic Turkish surroundings. In the Arabian Nights splendour of the new ‘Turkish Room’ at the Istanbul Restaurant, Mr Keskin entertained the members of the executive of the Dunedin Gallipoli Veterans Association. ‘I felt I had to do something on behalf of my country,’ said Mr Keskin, who believes that he is the only Turk in New Zealand. While his guests sat Turkish style, cross-legged on cushions around the room, Mr Keskin read a letter from Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister on behalf of the Republic’s Head of State General Cemal Cursel.”
Editor’s Note: The above article appeared in ‘Rocket Science,’ Monthly Newsletter of Mt Albert Islamic Centre, Auckland. Articles on Akif Keskin have appeared in previous issues of Indian Newslink.