“Bombs were stronger than education, I saw many students and teachers die…” – Joelle Farrayeh, aged 21.
The morning is crisp and blue, and the garden cries out with the humming of crickets and chirping of native birds.
Joelle Farrayeh’s bright hazel eyes are captivating as she speaks.
“In Syria, we don’t plan for the weekend, we can’t afford to think that way,” she says.
The 21-year-old refugee sits before me under a large weeping tree in her overgrown backyard in Lalor Park in Western Sydney.
“I laugh with my Syrian friends here in Australia when we ask each other, ‘what is your plan for the weekend?’ Because back in Syria, how are we meant to plan for the weekend if we don’t have water or electricity? Or, for example, if you plan to go to the café with your friend and they start bombing – you can’t go outside.”
Joelle’s mother, Rania, comes out to meet us bearing a plate of Zaatar – a traditional Syrian breakfast. Joelle has to hold their young Border Collie Boguie by her collar, as she leaps at the smell of the toasted bread.
Rania says her eldest daughter reminds her of herself.
“She can adapt to anything, like me, nothing now can hurt or stop her. When she first arrived here in Australia, she never once complained. I know she’ll be a very strong woman one day.
Joelle was 14 when the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. Her family thought they would be safe.
“We didn’t expect the war to come to Damascus,” Rania says.
We thought we were safe and protected by the government because we were living in the capital city. But we were wrong.
“As I mother who cares so much about her daughters, I really suffered and cried for many days because I was so worried all the time. I was scared, as my cousin lost her daughter in a bombing. She was only 16-years-old and a good friend of Joelle’s.”
According to the United Nations, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed in the war.
The country also has the largest displacement crisis in the world. Nearly four million of its people are listed as refugees in neighbouring countries, while there are well over six million people displaced internally.
Joelle’s high school was Christian and located in the anti-government area of Bab Touma.
After the school was destroyed in a bombing, the students were forced to move their classes to the local church.
Joelle describes how there were not enough desks and chairs for all the students and sometimes they’d have to do their exams on the floor.
“There was a bombing attack at a school not far from ours and many students were killed. It was horrible.
“So, the Minister of Education decided to close the school and told all the students to not come to school and that they [would still] pass their exams.
“After this, my mum refused [to let us] go to school and we were only allowed to go on the day of the exam… whenever there was a bad situation, we’d have to stay at home.”
They would often be left without electricity, so Joelle passed time studying or playing the piano.
The family’s home was in Jaramanah, a suburb just outside the main part of the capital.
Joelle speaks with fondness as she describes how safe and multicultural her suburb was before the war. She describes her home as beautiful, with many large rooms and a rooftop garden.
“Many times, we would be napping during the day when we couldn’t go to school and my mum would rush in and wake us, yelling that they were bombing and to quickly move downstairs.
“Because we were on the top level it was more dangerous, so we’d go and stay with our neighbours downstairs, and all squeeze in together in their bathroom until the bombing had finished.
“During this time it was so stressful. I used to go to church and cry because I was afraid to lose someone from my family. Family is so important in my country. Family always comes first.”
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has been in power since July 2000. Joelle believes that western media has incorrectly portrayed al-Assad as a terrorist and villain.
“We lived there and know him. I wear this bracelet with the flag and two stars, which shows I support the government. Being a Christian, it was so important that we were supported by the government.
“Bashar al-Assad would always save and look after the minorities, and he gave us rights such as the freedom to not wear the niqab, which is the full hijab.
“I saw how the government protected us and served us, and if he wasn’t there, we probably would have been killed.”
Joelle describes how on days when the temperature reached 42 degrees, she would still have to dress fully covered – for fear of being attacked or having acid thrown at her.
Yet, as we talked, I noticed how similarly we were dressed – both in a singlet and denim skirt.
In 2016, Joelle’s family received approval for a humanitarian and refugee visa and travelled to Australia.
It was a long-awaited relief and they were overjoyed to have been accepted, as many of their friends and family were denied.
“The first few months here in Australia, I cried every day.
“We would sit at home, as we were so afraid. We didn’t know where to go, how to use public transport and we couldn’t communicate very well either. However, once we started earning money and making friends, life became so much easier.”
Joelle is currently studying a Diploma of Business at the University of Western Sydney and working part-time at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Settlement Services International (SSI) played an important role in supporting Joelle and her family as they adjusted to their new life in Australia.
“They helped me apply for my job at the UNHCR. Without the SSI, I wouldn’t know my rights as I have no experience working in Australia. I now am being paid the correct wage and am able to save money.”
Refugee support services lost $77.9 million in funding in this year’s budget. Refugees will now have to wait 12 months after settlement before they can look for employment through services like SSI.
Joelle believes that delaying the employment of refugees could have a negative impact on their well-being and adjustment to Australian life.
She said that even though she was undertaking English lessons and working by cash in a restaurant before working for the UNHCR, she lacked confidence and was unhappy – as well as being underpaid.
SSI’s General Manager Service Delivery Yamamah Agha, says the change is positive.
“It will give refugees time to focus on initial settlement and English classes, instead of being forced to look for jobs while not ready,” he said.
Joelle now dreams of raising her children here and of them having an Australian accent.
“I don’t want my children to have the same childhood as me. I want them to be able to have the basic needs like electricity and water.
“I want them to grow up somewhere safe.”
“I don’t want them to see blood in the streets like I did, or to lose limbs in a war.”
Joelle and her husband Joseph live with the rest of the family.
The couple hadn’t planned getting married so young; “My dream was to get married in an old Damascus church, but it is not possible now.
“I would have also preferred to have been married at around 26-years-old, but this is my situation and if we didn’t get married, he (Joseph) wouldn’t be able to get the visa to come live in Australia.”
Joelle’s younger sister Giselle also lives with them. But their father Fadi, struggled to adjust after losing both his parents, and moved back to Syria.
Joelle says she is happy but misses her family and friends, while Rania painfully recalls the feeling of saying goodbye to her own mother.
I felt like a large tree who was ripped from the soil and had all my roots cut off.
Throughout the morning, Joelle reiterates that being a refugee is not a choice.
Her voice is calm and she reflects upon the situations she’s been through with a wisdom that is rare in someone so young.
Nyah Fouad came to know Joelle at the UNHCR, and says she quickly became fond of her: “… not only for her story, but also her resilience and how much she is willing to re-tell her journey and raise awareness at every opportunity.
“No-one wishes to become a refugee, or flee their country by such dangerous or even violent means,” she says.
“They are victims of circumstance, and just like everyone, they have so much to offer… they are often the most driven members of society.
“Australia also has a responsibility to uphold on the international stage. We need to be at the forefront of protecting human rights and, if we compare ourselves to other countries, we have the capacity to do a lot more.”
– Fleur Connick @ConnickFleur