Syrian refugees mark first year in New Zealand

Syrian refugees are settling in well and rebuilding their lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

Sisters Jinan, 6, and Maria, 9, are loving their new life in Wellington.
© New Zealand Red Cross

As New Zealand’s newest Kiwis start arriving as part of the additional Syrian refugee intake this month, one family is celebrating the first anniversary of their new life. In March 2015, Mirvat, her husband and three children were resettled by UNHCR under New Zealand’s refugee intake program. After escaping the conflict in Syria in 2012, they are now happy to be an ‘ordinary’ family again, learning English, going to school, and playing freely outside.

Before the war, Mirvat and her husband Nazeh lived with their children Ahmed, 10, Maria, 9, and Jinan, 6, in a residential suburb south of Damascus. Mirvat was a teacher for 16 years and Nazeh was a political journalist and an entrepreneur. The family owned three prosperous businesses: a barber shop, an interior decorating company, and part of a bus garage. “We had a perfect life,” Mirvat says.

As the conflict escalated, the suburb where Mirvat and the family lived became an area of intense fighting. Reluctant to leave their home, the family tried to temporarily move to another part of Syria, returning a month later disappointed to discover it had only gotten worse. Ahmed, the eldest child, remembers walking to school with friends and neighbors before the gunfire and explosions destroyed their community. Recalling the heartbreaking decision to leave Syria due to their fear for the safety and future of their children, Nazeh says, “you cannot stop and think, there is no time to think, you have to move.”

The family fled to Lebanon, and then on to Thailand where they struggled to make ends meet and access basic services including education and health. Now they are ready to rebuild their lives in Wellington. “Here it is much safer and the kids can play outside,” Mirvat says. Ahmed, a proud new Kiwi, is already an All Blacks fan and loves fish and chips. In turn, some of his classmates have learned a few Arabic words.

Maria and Jinan (pictured) are now also going to school and making friends. Maria, seeing Wellington’s famous hills for the first time, wondered why there were no escalators. Now, the family calls her “the little engineer.” Jinan wants to become a dancer.

Sisters Jinan, 6, and Maria, 9, are loving their new life in Wellington.  © New Zealand Red Cross

While Mirvat’s family is grateful for their chance at a new life, resettlement to countries such as New Zealand is only available to a tiny fraction of recognised refugees. “Globally, less than 1% of refugees are able to be submitted for resettlement,” explains Mike Clayton, Associate Legal Officer at UNHCR’s Regional Representation in Canberra. “Worldwide, approximately 460,000 people are in need of resettlement due to the Syrian refugee crisis alone. UNHCR is urging States to consider opportunities to increase the number of resettlement places and other pathways of admission that they can offer to refugees at a time of almost unprecedented displacement.”

Mirvat is especially thankful for the welcome her family has received from the community and particularly the local school. She would love to continue her career teaching Arabic and is just happy to be in a peaceful environment where her children can feel safe. “If [a country] has 40 million sheep, then it has to be safe,” she laughs.