The road from Damascus

In 2016, we met a recently settled group of Syrian refugees who had arrived in Wellington to begin the hard work of creating a new life on the other side of the world.


By Beth Rose
Photography by George Staniland

Featured in Capital #29
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Flicking through photographs on Google Images, nineteen-year-old Dalal Alshaib, a refugee from Syria, shows me places she’s visited on family holidays in her homeland. We are sitting in her new home in Naenae, talking about the life she left behind and the one she has now in Wellington.

Dalal points out a picture of Mount Qasioun, where she used to go on picnics. “From up there you can see the whole of Damascus,” she says. Mount Qasioun has a four-and-a-half star rating on TripAdvisor and is listed as a top tourist destination. Now, ISIS and other militants use it as a vantage point to fire missiles into the city. “Did you visit Syria before the war?” Dalal asks me. “Syria is an amazing country. I had a great life. I have a big family and when we had celebrations, we all met in one house. There was music and dancing. Do you know the dance called dabkeh?” Dalal can see immediately that, like most people she has met since arriving in Wellington a year ago, I’ve hardly any knowledge of Syria before the war began. Spurred on by my ignorance, she springs to her feet. “Men and women hold hands in a circle and we go round like this. And you move your legs and feet like this.” Dalal is dancing around the living room of her state home, skipping and flicking her feet, arms outstretched, holding hands with imaginary participants. She demonstrates the dabkeh to Syrian folk music recalled from the festivities of her childhood in Damascus.

More than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in 2011. There are 6.5 million internally displaced people in Syria, and over 4.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in other countries.

There are now more people forcibly displaced worldwide than ever before, surpassing the end of the Second World War, when New Zealand welcomed its first official refugees: in 1944, 733 Polish children arrived in Wellington Harbour.

According to New Zealand Red Cross, Syria became the world’s top source of refugees in 2014, overtaking Afghanistan, which had held this position for more than three decades.

At this moment Dalal is like any other normal light-hearted energetic teenager. She dances without inhibition. But she, like many young Syrians, has witnessed life-altering atrocities. “Children have seen all kinds of death – from bombs, chemical weapons and drowning in the sea. Young people have been put in prison and tortured and all this because people in Syria want their rights.” In March 2011, when security forces responded to pro-democracy protests with gunfire, a civil war ensued. The situation has since evolved into a sectarian war between President Assad’s Shia Alawite sect and Syria’s Sunni majority. ISIS is exploiting the situation and has advanced over fractured borders to occupy parts of Syria and bring further misery. “Syrian people don’t know how ISIS came to be there. Suddenly they arrived and started fighting for control of Syria. ISIS say they are Muslim on their videos, but they are lying, they are not Muslim. They kill Muslims and all real Muslims hate ISIS.” Dalal is proud of her homeland and devastated at what it has become. The fighting has scattered her family and she longs for things to return to the way they were. Relatives fleeing Syria have sought refuge in Germany, Turkey and Egypt. Eight of Dalal’s close family are also making a new life here in Wellington and she still has several aunts and uncles living in the conflict zones of Damascus. “When the war began near the area where we lived, we could hear the bombs and missiles landing on the buildings and some of our neighbours were killed. My father wanted to protect his family and so he moved us from the area of Rif Damascus into the central city of Damascus. “When we moved house, I thought it would be all over in one or two months and that we could move back to our home.” But Dalal’s father, Kasem, could see that this wasn’t going to happen. He organised safe passage for his family to Egypt, via Lebanon and, ultimately, on to New Zealand. “I left Damascus at sixteen years old, but I didn’t want to leave Syria, I love Syria. My mother made me leave. When we arrived in Cairo, we all stayed at my cousin’s house in the district of “6th of October City” where lots of Syrian people live. The conditions there were very bad. “I had to give up my studies and begin working with my father. We made Syrian food at home, which we sold to restaurants. I hated living in Egypt – it was dirty and it wasn’t safe. I wanted to go back to Syria to die. I wanted to have my dignity back.”

At this moment Dalal is like any other normal light-hearted energetic teenager. She dances without inhibition. But she, like many young Syrians, has witnessed life-altering atrocities. “Children have seen all kinds of death – from bombs, chemical weapons and drowning in the sea. Young people have been put in prison and tortured and all this because people in Syria want their rights.” In March 2011, when security forces responded to pro-democracy protests with gunfire, a civil war ensued. The situation has since evolved into a sectarian war between President Assad’s Shia Alawite sect and Syria’s Sunni majority. ISIS is exploiting the situation and has advanced over fractured borders to occupy parts of Syria and bring further misery. “Syrian people don’t know how ISIS came to be there. Suddenly they arrived and started fighting for control of Syria. ISIS say they are Muslim on their videos, but they are lying, they are not Muslim. They kill Muslims and all real Muslims hate ISIS.” Dalal is proud of her homeland and devastated at what it has become. The fighting has scattered her family and she longs for things to return to the way they were. Relatives fleeing Syria have sought refuge in Germany, Turkey and Egypt. Eight of Dalal’s close family are also making a new life here in Wellington and she still has several aunts and uncles living in the conflict zones of Damascus. “When the war began near the area where we lived, we could hear the bombs and missiles landing on the buildings and some of our neighbours were killed. My father wanted to protect his family and so he moved us from the area of Rif Damascus into the central city of Damascus. “When we moved house, I thought it would be all over in one or two months and that we could move back to our home.” But Dalal’s father, Kasem, could see that this wasn’t going to happen. He organised safe passage for his family to Egypt, via Lebanon and, ultimately, on to New Zealand. “I left Damascus at sixteen years old, but I didn’t want to leave Syria, I love Syria. My mother made me leave. When we arrived in Cairo, we all stayed at my cousin’s house in the district of “6th of October City” where lots of Syrian people live. The conditions there were very bad. “I had to give up my studies and begin working with my father. We made Syrian food at home, which we sold to restaurants. I hated living in Egypt – it was dirty and it wasn’t safe. I wanted to go back to Syria to die. I wanted to have my dignity back.”

Since it was announced more than 80 Syrian refugees would be arriving in Wellington in early 2016, Red Cross have been inundated with offers of help from Wellingtonians. “We train 600 volunteers each year who will support refugees and guide them through situations such as enrolling with doctors and schools and how to use public transport.” Red Cross echoes Amnesty International NZ’s call for the government to double the quota of refugees that New Zealand accepts each year, which currently stands at 750. This figure hasn’t been increased in nearly thirty years. Last year the government agreed to add 600 places for Syrian refugees, spread over the next two and a half years. “We would like to see the quota increased to reflect the significant displacement of people worldwide, which is at an all time high. But it has to be adequately resourced to prevent it impacting host communities,” says Rachel.

“New Zealand Red Cross is responsible for the needs of refugees once they have left Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. We prepare houses with linen and kitchen equipment, using donations made by the public. We organise and train volunteers and set up orientations. We support families in their new lives for the first 12 months.”

“New Zealand has a 70-year history of welcoming refugees”, says Rachel O’Connor, National Programmes Development Coordinator for New Zealand Red Cross. Rachel oversees the organisation of volunteers and processes involved in resettling refugees in New Zealand.

Things in Egypt got worse when Dalal and her then fourteen-year-old sister Dyanna were in a road accident. “The tuk tuk that we were travelling in overturned. Dyanna was okay, but I broke both my shoulders. No one helped us and the driver got away.” After two years in Egypt, Dalal’s father began looking for a way out and a Syrian friend suggested he speak to the United Nations. After many interviews, the family were offered refuge in New Zealand. “My grandmother was very sick and needed kidney dialysis. My father explained this and told the UN how we were living: that I was sleeping in the living room with my Grandmother and my sister was sharing a room with my parents. There were nine people in a two-bedroom house.” Dalal, Dyanna, their parents, grandmother and two aunts and uncles arrived in Auckland in November 2014. After six weeks at the Refugee Resettlement Centre in Mangere, everyone was transferred to Wellington. “It was very hard when we first arrived,” says Dalal. “I didn’t understand anything anyone was saying. I started at Naenae College and volunteers were assigned to me. One girl – who is from Sudan – speaks Arabic and she helped explain what my teachers were saying. I also have a translator app on my phone. “My Kiwi friend Shanaya helped me learn English.We’d walk to college together and she’d point at things and say “lamppost” or “letterbox”. I have lots of Kiwi friends at college now. Everyone has been so helpful and welcoming. The Red Cross organise meet-ups at the Syrian Consul and so I’ve made lots of Syrian friends here too, but they all live in Newtown.” Dalal is now the translator for her whole family, although her mother, Nuseba, is learning English at classes during the week. While we’re talking, Nuseba comes in to introduce herself, keen to use her English. She’s holding a plate of Syrian sweets and a glass of homemade fruit juice: “raspberry,” which is a new word and not an easy one. I ask Dalal how her family feel about their new home “Here, in Lower Hutt, there is lots of space and it’s so quiet. New Zealand has beautiful landscapes and I really like Wellington – everyone is very welcoming. When I go outside, I wear my hijab, and I haven’t experienced any discrimination.” Dalal shows me selfies she’s taken on her phone in which she’s wearing different hijabs. In some photos she is standing in the Wellington Botanic Garden with her aunt and her seventy-three-year-old grandmother. Dalal says her grandmother has adapted well to living here. “She has met lots of Syrian people in Wellington and that has helped. She’s learnt a bit of English, but she says “hello” in reply to everything. It has been hard for her and she talks about going back to Syria a lot. “If I went back to Syria now, I don’t know where I would go. All of my area has been destroyed and a lot of the people I used to know will have changed. Every day I think about my friends and family. Have you seen what’s happening in Madaya? People there are starving and it is so close to where I lived in Damascus. It’s maybe the same distance from here [Lower Hutt] to Wellington.” Fighting has trapped around 40,000 people living in the town of Madaya, and some have died of starvation. The situation is desperate and BBC News reports say that some Syrians have resorted to eating cats and grass to survive. While I’ve been talking to Dalal, her father has been on the phone speaking Arabic, so I ask Dalal if he is talking to people in Syria. “Yes, he’s talking to his friends. I hear him on the phone a lot, talking about how many people have died and I see how sad he is. I don’t want to hear bad news, but there is never any good news.” In only a year, Dalal’s English is bordering on fluent. She studies English along with accounting and economics at college and has big plans for the future. “I want to improve my English and then go to Victoria University of Wellington to study commerce. I visited with my teacher and I really liked it. I’m very grateful to my teachers and friends, and to New Zealand Immigration. Maybe one day I will go to Syria, or I will make my life here. New Zealand is a beautiful and safe country.”

In 2018, two years after we first met the Alshaib family, we caught up with them to see how they were getting on.

Syrian former-refugee Dalal passed her restricted driving test and completed NCEA Levels 1–3, and had begun studying at Victoria University. Dalal appeared in the limelight since her interview with Capital, starring in the interactive documentary Together We Make a Nation and appearing on Seven Sharp in 2017. Habiba was expecting a baby, Nuseba was learning how to drive, and Kasem’s garden was thriving.

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