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Refugee couple find safety but fear for their country

15 December 20151 comment

Hani and Hayam Pito are not your average refugees.

As comfortable, middle-class professionals the future looked bright for them and their eight-year-old son Elias.

Hani and Hayam Pinto came to Australia from Syria

Hani and Hayam Pinto came to Australia from Syria

Working as English teachers in the Syrian city of Al-Hasekah, they had a nice home, a car and a network of friends.

But all that changed when their homeland was plunged into civil strife in 2012.

Their worlds were turned upside down by the conflict that has seen more than 250,000 Syrians lose their lives and 11 million forced from their homes in four-and-a-half years.

“Five years ago everything was different in my country, Syria. It was a peaceful place to live and you could meet friendly people who were eager to help you freely with a smile on their faces. Everything was cheap and available,” Hani said.

“Suddenly, everything changed. We were attacked by strange people; our houses were burnt and our poor villages were destroyed. They killed, kidnapped and stole from us. It was a very bad situation,” he said.

As Assyrian Christians, the Pitos were caught in the middle of a confused, brutal war with rival Islamic groups fighting the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, ISIS and each other; and ISIS fighting everyone.

“First of all suddenly we heard some people and went out to check the situation. Our city Hassaka was surrounded by foreign fighters who were part of an anti-government group,” Hani said.

“I was shot three times when I went out to get bread for my family. One bullet went into my back and out through my shoulder,” he said.

“These people meant to shoot me. They targeted me because I was working with a local organisation related to our church.

“They kidnapped one of my friends and shot me. My friend was eventually freed after we paid money to them,” Hani said.

Looking for safety they moved back to their ancestral village in the Khabur River valley in northern Syria close to the border with Turkey.

It is an area that until very recently was controlled by ISIS. The 30-or-so villages in the valley are now empty and their 30,000-or-so inhabitants have either fled or been killed.

“We returned to our village to hide. Again the village was surrounded by these people who threatened us,” Hani said.

“First they asked us to take down the cross on our church. If not, they said they would destroy the whole village.

“I was recovering from my wounds and I thought about my son and his future so we decided to run away to Lebanon,” Hani said.

“After a few months, I took my wife and my son and ran to Lebanon on a dangerous trip to face our destiny,” he said.

Having spent 18 months in Lebanon, Hani and his family came to Australia as refugees sponsored by Hani’s brother, who has been here 33 years.

“My brother did the paper work, we went for an interview and we got a visa. After 18 months in Lebanon we came to Australia safely thanks to God,”

“In the end, we reached Australia a few months ago, looking for peace and a better life,” he said.

Hani’s wife Hayam is pleased and relieved to be in Australia but has fears for her family still trapped in Syria.

“Life is good here for us now because we are safe. But we are having problems adjusting because my mum and dad are still in Aleppo, which is the most dangerous city in Syria,” Hayam said.

“The city is surrounded and no one can come in or go out,” she said.

“We talk to them on the phone and it is clear they are not safe – they are living in a dangerous place and in dangerous times.”

Hani and Hayam are now enrolled in a workplace skills for professionals program with settlement agency AMES Australia.

“In our minds we would like to teach people and help people here in Australia. We would like to work with other refugees and asylum seekers to help them,” Hani said.

But in the back of his mind is the constant fear for the future of his entire country.

“With my tears I wish the best to my country which has turned into a battlefield; an arena for big countries and forces who are looking only at the own interests and benefits,” he said.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist