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Syrians find refuge after five year ordeal

19 June 20230 comments

A group of Syrian refugees who were trapped in Iraq for up to five years after fleeing the war in their homeland have finally arrived in Australia.

The group, which comprises several families, fled to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in 2018 and 2019 and became effectively trapped there because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They found safety in what was a relatively peaceful part of Iraq but struggled to survive suffering exploitation, discrimination and harassment.

One family of four women fled their home in Damascus in 2018 as the civil war reached its height.

Syrian refugee ‘Nikki’*, who arrived in Australia last month with her mother, sister and aunt said the past five years had been “very difficult”.

“We had to leave our home in Damascus in 2018. The war was bad but it also created financial problems for us and so we couldn’t live there. We could not study and there seems to be no future for us,” Nikki said.

“We went to Erbil where a lot of Syrians were moving to at the time. We thought we would only be there a year or so.

“But then the corona virus came and we were trapped there. We had planned to come to Australia but the pandemic cancelled that. Australia seemed further and further away for us   

“Life was very difficult for us. We were four women in a different country with a different culture. We were living in one room and we all worked hard to get money to live. I’m not sure how we survived.

“My mum worked babysitting, my aunt worked as a receptionist in a gym and I taught small children,” Nikki said.

She and her family are looking forward to their new lives in Australia.

“I am currently studying to improve my English and I then want to go to TAFE or University to study IT,” Nikki said.

Another of the Syrian refugees is journalist ‘Homaira’* who had to flee Damascus after writing articles critical of the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Her daughter ‘Cara’* said Homaira became a target of the government after the articles, which exposed corruption in the electricity supply agency.

”Mum was telling the truth about the government and it made her a target,” Cara said.

“We moved from house to house in different parts of Damascus before finally we had to leave and we flew to Erbil,” she said.

After arriving in Erbil, the family spent all of their savings on motels. Cara eventually found work as an architect and they were able to rent a house.

Homaira was not able to work because of a medical condition and her son ‘Majid’* was not eligible to attend school.

Majid had no friends and he withdrew into himself spending hours on his phone, Cara said.

Homaira and Cara had applied through the UNHCR for ‘women at risk’ visas to come to Australia and they underwent interviews in 2020.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and Cara lost her job and the chance of coming to Australia evaporated.

“It was a really hard time for us. We struggled to live and we were discriminated against. I did all the work art my place of employment but Iraqis who did very little received two times my salary,” Cara said.

She found another job in a beauty salon but was fired again because of COVID lockdowns.

Marshalling her skills and resilience, Cara eventually found work teaching Photoshop techniques.

“I am looking forward to starting life in Australia and I want to resume my career in architecture,” Cara said.

“My mum’s dream is to become a teacher of French literature which she studied in Syria,” she said.

When Fadi Hejazi was injured by bomb shrapnel, her family realised it was time to leave.

Fadi, her husband Moussa Al-Fahel and children Joelle, Hanan, Grace and Kamel fled their home in the Syrian capital of Damascus for the relative safety of Erbil, a Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq.

“We left Syria in 2018 because of the war. It wasn’t safe and my mum was injured in the bombing,” said Joelle.

“We wanted the chance to have a good safe life so we flew to Erbil,” she said.

But life in the Iraqi city was far from easy for the Al-Fahel family.

“It was exhausting. We all needed to work to be able to survive and we couldn’t finish out schooling,” Joelle said.

“My sister worked as a restaurant captain, my mum worked sous chef, my other sister was a cashier and I worked as a p.a. in a legal company,” she said.

After five years living precariously in Erbil, the family arrived in Melbourne in May.

“We are relieved and grateful to have finally come to Australia. We are looking forward to building new lives here,” Joelle said.

“I just want to finish high school and then study business administration,” she said.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees