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Syrian refugee crisis: 'I didn’t feel like a human being until I came to New Zealand'

Nicola Russell from The Australian Women's Weekly was there to meet the latest Syrian refugees as they arrived in New Zealand.

A modest hall at Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre is buzzing with the noise of families.

We’ve seen much in the press about our intake of Syrian refugees but the reality of that dialogue is in this room. The 157 refugees here are New Zealand’s first intake for 2016; 82 are Syrians.

Few will ever forget the heart-breaking image that swamped our screens of a three year old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach – the tiny victim that opened the world’s eyes to the worst humanitarian of our time, fuelled by a violent civil war. In response the New Zealand government announced a special emergency intake of 600 Syrians over two and a half years, above its annual quota of 750.

In January the first of these Syrian refugees arrived at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, and among them is Husein Mostafa, a slender, gently spoken man of Sunni faith.

He and his family – Fidaa Ahmad and children Mostafa, nine, and Rima, 12 – lived in the Syrian city of Baniyas, where they came under attack by the Alawites, a major Islamic sect and the majority religion.

“Demonstrations started in Baniyas and Dayr az-Zawr,” says Husein through an interpreter. “The Alawites started to shoot people – they were backed by the government, who supported them with 35,000 military personnel. There are only 15,000 Sunnis in Baniyas. They attacked us, arrested people and told us that whoever surrendered could leave within two hours. I surrendered, but because there was no place to go in the country, I was arrested [and held] for a month and 12 days.”

He would be arrested twice more before getting his family to Lebanon where they took refuge for four years but did not find peace.

“There is a system now so that the Lebanese people can financially make use of the whole thing. If you want to renew your residency you have to bring a Lebanese citizen who will be your ‘sponsor’ – for a financial sum.”

His children had never known freedom before they arrived in New Zealand.

“They did not start playing until they got here,” explains Husein. “I wouldn’t allow them to go past the door of our home because I was so afraid they would get beaten. Now they are even happier than I am. We have been treated so kindly – I didn’t feel like a human being until I came to this country.

“My hopes are that they will study and that they live in peace and are safe.”

Asked what she would like to study, Rima’s piercing eyes light up. “I want to be a doctor,” she says.

In the March edition of The Australian Women’s Weekly we meet two refugee families, take a look at how the New Zealand government and our refugee resettlement services are responding to the international refugee crisis, and ask if we could be doing more to help.

To help go to: www.redcross.org.nz

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