Ten years since war broke out in Syria, those who fled to Australia share their trauma

The war in Syria left millions fleeing, and the humanitarian crisis continues today. For many, the memories will never fade, while for others, finding a new place to call home has seen them flourish.

Zuzan Hassan, her husband Kamiran Gharib and their kids Issa & Sidra,

Zuzan Hassan and her family when they first arrived in Australia in 2017. Source: SBS News

Content warning: This article contains references that some may find distressing. 

It was 2011 in Aleppo, Syria, and mother of two, Zuzan Hassan was nine months pregnant with twin boys. Her family of four were living on the top level of a five-storey apartment block when a series of airstrikes began above them.

“Our building was collapsing so I was running away with my two small kids, and the babies in my stomach fell out in the street,” she says.

Covered in blood, Zuzan was carried to hospital by the strangers around her, only to be turned away because it was at capacity. She was left on the floor outside the hospital.

“A lady in the street helped me and took them and buried them,” 39-year-old says of the twins she lost. “To this day, I don’t know where they were buried.”

Zuzan Hassan.
Source: SBS News

Monday marks a decade since the start of the war in Syria. On 15 March 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, protestors in Syria took the streets to call for an end to the Assad government’s repressive regime.

The government’s brutal response to the riots gave rise to the rebels.

In retaliation, the armed rebels, backed by both Arab and Western countries quickly rose to power, usurping major cities including Homs and parts of Aleppo.

Over the past 10 years, the war has grown to involve several countries including Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran. It also birthed one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups with the so-called Islamic State rising to power in June 2014, taking over several territories across Syria and Iraq and declaring a Caliphate.

“I don't think many of us could have imagined 10 years ago that what began as street protests would escalate in quite the way it did, and would continue for a decade,” says David Tuck from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Zuzan Hassan with her husband and their four children.
Source: SBS News

Zuzan, her husband Kamiran Gharib, and their four children - Issa, Sidra, Shams and Everest - now live in Coffs Harbour on the north coast of New South Wales. But the horror of war they experienced is still just as raw today.

The family is Yazidi, an ethnic minority traditionally from northern Iraq.

“We are Yazidis. We weren’t allowed even to say we were Yazidi; writing you were Kurdish was illegal in all documents,” Zuzan says.

When war eventually broke out, minority groups became a target.

“When all the brutality and killing started, there were Arab people who attacked the Kurdish communities, stabbing, slaughtering, and killing, these were the types of scenes we saw very often,” Zuzan says.

She and her family fled to Iraq in April 2012, where they stayed until they were granted a UN humanitarian visa to come to Australia five years later.

“When I first came, it was really hard, I felt like I was choking, I didn’t trust anyone,” she says.

Her husband suffered too after learning of the death of his mother and brother.

“He’s never been able to recover,” Zuzan says.

Zuzan Hassan and her children.
Source: SBS News

The family are among the 12 million Syrians who remain displaced today. More than five million sought refuge across the world, of which more than 30,000 resettled in Australia.

More than 400,000 people have been killed as a result of the war.

“The Syrian crisis is not only one of the largest crises that UNHCR has ever had to deal with, but also one of the most complex,” says Naomi Steer, chief executive of Australia for UNHCR.

“Just looking at the personal cost; hundreds of thousands of Syrians dead, and now millions of Syrians displaced. It's really a roll-call of disaster and sorrow … nobody expected this conflict to last for 10 years.”

Zuzan’s family are just six of the almost 12 million Syrians that are displaced today - 5.6 million sought refuge across the globe, of which more than 30,000 have resettled in Australia.

Some of those who managed to flee are now flourishing in their new homes.

Among them is 17-year-old Fadi Abo who fled Syria with his family aged eight. Today, he is the chief executive of his own company in Melbourne.

Fadi Abo at his Collins Street office.
Source: SBS News

“It was definitely a very hard thing to do to leave your hometown, I was very young ... so it was a lot to take in and handle,” he says.

Being so young, Fadi didn’t fully understand what was going on and often leaned on his older brother for support.

“My brother really had to take care of me and make sure I was doing well, so he had to assume a parental role as well. We were all unsure of what was going to happen in the next few months, days, or even the next day, so he was definitely very protective and cautious.”

Fadi Abo as a child with his older brother in Syria.
Source: SBS News

Fadi’s family fled first to France, then the US for two years, before settling in Australia.

“When we first came to Australia I remember I thought it was very green, I thought it was very beautiful, and when we left the airport I remember seeing all these cars, we were going down the highway ... I just felt safe and very lucky to be in such a beautiful country,” he says.

At just 14, he opened his own online cosmetics shop. 

“I had no help, no finances, zero direction or guidance, I just jumped straight into the deep end one night and started an e-commerce company.”

He now hopes to move into other industries.

Ten years on from Syria: Fadi's story

Patil Macardij Hagob has also found success in Australia. 

“[While we were in Syria] I started to plan ahead and dream ‘what I can do in Australia?’ because the situation was obvious, for me, that after five or six years it might be impossible to return to where we used to be,” the 20-year-old says.

Patil Macardij Hagob at home in Sydney.
Source: SBS News

Patil was 11 and living in Aleppo with her family when the war broke out.

“In the beginning, it was really hard, it was like we were living in an action movie, we’d never seen or experienced such things before … it was hard to be motivated to go to school or to leave the house because you never knew if you would make it back home … you never knew what was going to happen in the next minute; if you’re going to live or die or get hit by a bomb,” she says. 

Ten years on from Syria: Patil's story

Now, after only four years in Australia, she’s already achieved one of the things on her bucket list; to study science at the University of Sydney.

Her next dream is to be able to play the piano at the Sydney Opera House - an iconic building in the place she now calls home.

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Published 15 March 2021 at 5:41am
By Massilia Aili, Omar Dehen