“There is nothing left for us there”

I’m sitting in the kitchen of the Haddad family in Ballina, having a conversation with Bashar and Mary about their experiences since they left Syria just over four years ago, and about how they feel about the CRISP program that allowed them to come to Australia.

Bashar speaks openly about why they left Syria, and about their difficult four years in Kurdistan, looking for somewhere else that they would be allowed to go.  He is translating for his mother as he goes.  Bashar’s English is excellent (he speaks four languages), but Mary had no English when she arrived and some questions are difficult. Yet Mary smiles and laughs generously – she is one of the warmest people I’ve ever met.

Just over four years ago, 22-year-old Civil Engineering student, Bashar, his mother, Mary, and younger sister Nagham, left their home in Syria.  Bashar’s father had been killed, and staying in Syria was dangerous for them.

About the loss of his father, Bashar said “You just have to keep going – there’s no time to be sad. There is nothing left for us there – I can’t have a decent job – you can’t have a normal life.”

The family had applied to come to Australia on a Humanitarian Visa. Three years later they were offered a place in the Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP) and were given only two days to decide. Then they had to choose a country area or a city, and with learning English in mind, they chose a country area where there would be unlikely to be many other Syrians, and they would have to immerse themselves in the language.

What had they heard about Australia before they arrived? “Weird weather, lots of strange animals and nice people”, Bashar replied.

And what have been the best aspects of coming here? “Almost everything – a lot of opportunities, a quiet life – I love it!”  Not sometimes too quiet for a young man, I asked? He conceded with a smile, “Sometimes a bit too quiet.”

And what has been the most unexpected thing?  He translates for Mary and nods in agreement at her answer. “The huge amount of support from our Community Support Group (CSG).” Mary is smiling and nodding her head in agreement, and just then, a woman comes in bearing a cake. Introduced to me as Jane, she’s the daughter of well-known community volunteer, Mary O’Brien, and the pair accommodated the Haddads for ten days when the family first arrived in Australia. Jane and Mary live just over the road. “They are like family”, Mary says. Jane explains that her mother, who is in her 90s, baked the cake. I’m given a generous slice and of course it’s delicious – though a voice in my head tells me I shouldn’t be eating cake at 6pm.

And the future for Bashar, who, along with his sister, works in a coffee shop? “Since coming here, I’ve completed my studies in Graphic Design. My plan now is to pursue a career as a Flight Attendant. I didn’t want to be a Civil Engineer”, he said.  My father wanted me to be a doctor and my mother would have liked me to be a Dentist.  I didn’t want to be either, but they said that if not the medical profession, I would have to study Engineering. A bad deal for me, I think,” he says, looking at his mother with a cheeky grin. “I wanted to be a journalist”.

Mary told me she would have liked to be an artist. But at the moment she has her sights set on building her small business. With the help of members of her Community Support Group, Mary has established Sweet Mary’s Sweets, making and selling Syrian sweets.

I’m hoping she’ll ask me to come over and taste them!