Viva Alaisa still remembers the day her husband Hussein and her four children fled Syria. By 2013, the family’s comfortable middle class life had turned into a nightmare. The country had descended into a civil war. ISIS was on the rise. There were long queues in the city and fights over petrol and food, with people forced to line up at the bakery at 4am to buy bread.
One day when the Alaisa family were shopping, two car bombs exploded while Viva’s two boys were at the hair salon, leaving the mum of four shaken as she struggled to find them in the ensuing chaos.
Despite being married to a Syrian Muslim, Viva, a Lebanese-Christian Armenian who was then pregnant with her fifth child, knew it was only a matter of time before she would be targeted by ISIS.
On January, 13 Viva and Hussain piled their four children, Fahed, Elaine, and twins Mohammad and Jamila, and one suitcase into their car to make the perilous 600-kilometre desert road journey into Lebanon.
“I took just two changes of clothes, our passports and all the cash money we had,” Viva told SBS Life.
The family never returned, leaving precious photo albums, the couple’s qualifications and a lifetime of family mementos behind.
“We didn’t have time to do anything else. I didn’t think I’m not coming back. We didn’t even get to say goodbye to the neighbours or extended family. Nobody knew,” she said.
The Alaisa family are featured in the new SBS documentary series Go Back To Where You Came From Live. The three-part series features a cast of well-known Australians, including controversial former Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, comedian Meshel Laurie, former Big Brother host Gretel Killeen and ex-AFL player Spida Everitt.
They are matched with those with opposing views on the refugee debate and flown into the frontline of the global refugee crisis, spending time with refugee families to understand the real world impact of war and dislocation. Lambie is paired with Sydney immigration lawyer Marina, who arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1995. The journey has not been without hairy moments, with Lambie and Marina forced to flee suspected ISIS gunmen over the weekend after landing in Syria.
Before arriving in Syria, Lambie and Marina spent a weekend at the Alaisa’s home in Sydney’s west. Viva’s son Mohammad, 20, said he was familiar with Lambie, having watched her monologues against sharia law, the burqa and Muslim immigration online: “When I saw her on YouTube she was a bit aggressive. When I started talking to her inside, I thought she was going to go off, but then she stayed calm.
“When she came here, she was apologising to us about what she said on YouTube. It was a bit offensive. I think her perspective changed a bit here when she knew what happened with us, and actually met us and saw how we are. It helps a lot."
Mohammad says he hopes the show will change the perspectives of those with a hardline stance on refugees.
“They should be open-minded about other people. They should put themselves in their shoes so they can know what’s going on with them. You can’t judge someone without being in his position or her position.”
Viva says Lambie’s experience with the family may have softened her views.
“I heard about her name but I didn’t know her face,” Viva said.
“When I watched her interviews on YouTube, she was very strict with her opinions but I think after they met us, she was more lenient. I think she is not like before,” she said.
“She was really nice. She had her opinions and she has her reasons, but she was good. She came with an open mind. She was just listening and listening very well to what we were saying.”
The Alaisa family shared with Lambie their story of making the heart thumping road journey into Lebanon, which meant speeding past armed militia men, Syrian intelligence checkpoints and ISIS strongholds to reach the city of Tripoli.
In Tripoli, the family shared a cramped two-bedroom flat with the family of Viva’s sister. Despite Lebanon being Viva’s home, the family struggled to find their feet in the country, also riven with instability and conflict. Viva had studied English literature as a student and fallen in love with Hussein, a building contractor, when he was visiting Lebanon to see a cousin. The couple married and migrated to Syria in 1997.
Jamila, 19, says life in Lebanon was like being in limbo: “Some of them looked down at Syrian people and we didn’t go to school for almost two years. Imagine life - me a teenager just at home all day, no work, no study. I was really stressed. I didn’t have a life. I was praying me, my mum, just get accepted to come to Australia, to start a new life.”
The family were eventually sponsored to go to Australia on a humanitarian visa in 2014 by Viva’s other sister, a Sydney nurse.
“We’re really lucky to be in here. I’m so grateful for that. It’s like a miracle,” Jamila said.
Despite losing all their wealth in Syria, Viva says she feels lucky to have her family and to be safe, unlike so many friends and family left behind.
“You have everything and then suddenly you press a button and you start from zero.”
“Just having faith in God, or in the future… being optimistic and never giving up and having that attitude – I can do it. Even if you can’t do it, you will find yourself doing it. Step by step. It doesn’t matter if you start from zero.”
'Go Back To Where You Came From Live' airs over three consecutive nights, October 2 – 4, 8.30pm, LIVE on SBS Australia and streaming live at SBS On Demand.
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