A young Syrian refugee with a love for poetry, and an Australian who established a co-op to help refugees settle in to Sydney. These are their stories.
By Janelle Taouk
Part I: A Syrian Refugee’s Perspective
Around seven years ago, Sarina Mouzenian believed that she was going to die. Sitting in a Café in Aleppo with her sisters, they were too busy chatting to hear the TV. But then people started screaming and fleeing as guns fired bullets, and bodies dropped to the floor, dying.
“I was in shock. I’m not sure what I was thinking at that time, but ‘this is the end of my life. I’m dying today.’ It was really terrible, one second you’re really happy and the other you hear people screaming and…explosions happening,” says Sarina.
They eventually made it home five hours later, after they’d seen their bus driver being shot in the head, she says, far removed in both time and place from that moment. Her journey as a refugee has forced her from Syria, her birthplace, to Armenia, the land of her ancestors, through Turkey to Lebanon, and finally, to Australia where she’s lived for almost two years.
Initially, Sarina’s family travelled to Armenia for vacation but were told by relatives not return to Syria because of violence. After a year, they hitchhiked through the snow across the Turkish border and caught a bus to Istanbul. From there, they bought the cheapest plane tickets to Beirut, where they remained for four years.
“It was terrible to leave without knowing that I’m going to go back…I haven’t been home for seven years now, so sometimes I do get homesick.” she says.
Now, 20 and living in Liverpool, she is currently doing her HSC at Miller Technology High School, and aspires to study paramedicine or physiotherapy.
“I haven’t been in high school for like four years. You know in Lebanon, they’re a bit racist. When we told them that I’m Syrian, they were like ‘no’…I went to school illegally for a year and a half, and it was an Armenian school.”
But, not allowed to take official government exams and being charged double the usual fees, Sarina left school and found work in a Café during the day, and as a bartender at night. Although she thought she would remain in Lebanon, her family was sponsored by her Australian aunt and their refugee visas came through.
“I had no idea about Australia. My head was blank…I just knew about the Harbour Bridge, nothing more”
“I wouldn’t think of coming here as a refugee, because as a kid all I dreamed about was travelling and studying and knowing that I have a home to go back to; Syria,” she says.
Sarina asserts that she has had positive experiences in settling into Australia; she camped outside the Opera House on New Year’s to see the fireworks, she braved the ‘slingshot’ ride at the Easter Show and she faced her fears by speaking as Prefect in front of her school peers.
“I’m pretty sure there were like 600 students and it was my very first time facing my fears…I was just shaking; it was a big joy,” says Sarina.
Her love of poetry has also been a way to face her fears. She writes of love, loss and about her home as a coping mechanism, and to reflect on her experiences as a refugee.
“It was a big relief, because when I write I keep it inside me and decided not to talk to anyone. It felt like I’m just yelling out my problems when I read out loud,” she says.
She hopes to publish her work one day. But for now, here is an excerpt from her poem;
What is Aleppo?
The roots of my soul. The source of my blood flow.
The heartache I retain, sheltered in sorrow.
The blooming love, exalted through the singing heartbeats composing
the sense of home we carry in our souls.
The waking up, early in the morning, to the street vendor
riding his carriage and yelling the prices of the watermelons
Over the sound of the footsteps of his horse.
The car horns blasting over the policemen’s whistles blowing,
trying to operate the traffic while we’re trying to cross the road.
The family gatherings at our grandparents’ household.
The laughter of our loved ones. Tea after lunch followed by the afternoon nap,
before the waking of the city at night.The smell of the spices
in the souk of the city and my unstoppable sneezing, walking through its alley.
The queen of our hearts, the Citadel of Aleppo and the countless memories
our spirits hold in between the chasms of its old walls.
The melody of the oud
Playing, spellbound by the muezzin
Calling for the prayer
along with the bells of the church ringing.
The theft of the children’s innocence
The destruction of this ancient inhabited city.
The loss of many lives
I’ll be in Australia praying for Aleppo,
Letting the pain take my breath away.
You’ll be the Chemical splash on my eyelids, taking my flesh away.
Part II: An Australian’s Perspective
Ravi Parsad sits casually in his lounge room-turned-Café, surrounded by a somehow comfortable clutter of plants,
books, polaroids, a chandelier with a disco ball attached, and even a motorbike, sipping his tea. The Café only seats 16 people, and there are a group of ladies chatting over the gentle background music, a woman typing on her laptop, and the smell of freshly ground coffee fills the air.
Parliament on King, located on Newtown’s bustling King Street, is a social enterprise that supports and nurtures refugees and asylum seekers settling in Australia by training them in hospitality. Founded by Ravi and his wife in 2013, over 300 refugees and asylum seekers have been taught barrister skills, food preparation, and food services.
“What we try to do is address the social, cultural, economic barriers asylum seekers and refugees face in Australian society. The key to that is economic participation, so a lot of the stuff is vocational: building capacity, confidence, competency, but there is a large social component to that,” Ravi says.
Most of the trainees arrived by boat and spent time in detention centres around Australia, but some are on tourist visas too. They come in different ways, and from different places, but there is always social cohesion. Ravi recalls one of the first training sessions, where a Christian pastor, a Nigerian Catholic nun, a Palestinian “self-declared atheist”,
a Shia and Sunni Muslim, and a Malaysian Christian were in the one room.
“I was really curious…. I just thought; ‘I don’t know how this is going to work’. It worked out just fine, and these guys make friends, and differences don’t mean much.”
While the Café provides a context for refugees and asylum seekers to flourish, Ravi insists that it works the other way around. When Ravi’s family came back from vacationing in Europe recently, their home was cleaner than they’d left it, the plants were growing and the cats were fatter.
“They look after me and my family really well…It may seem like we’re doing all the giving, but it comes back through the love, care and friendship. What I’m grateful for is the opportunity to be useful. Being useful is its own reward,” says Ravi.
Interestingly, Parliament on King functions via an allegory; the till. When you order a cup of coffee and go to collect it, the staff don’t ask for a fee. Instead, there is a till where you can place money in and take your change out, essentially calculating your own bill like the locals do. This little brass pot that is used as a till is symbolic of the ethos of the Café, and its purpose in helping settle refugees.
“Think about what that means in terms of life…. would you steal a cup of coffee? Do you ever dream of taking money from a till? If you want to trust somebody, do one thing; trust them, and they’ll be trustworthy. Wouldn’t it be great if the world worked like that?”
For many refugees, this Café is a refuge. It’s a place where people who’ve left behind their homes and families and whose credentials are not recognised, are assisted in forging a new life without forgetting their old one.
“With them they bring beautiful traditions, beautiful foods and this gorgeous hospitality and that enlivens us all. It’s good to see people stand tall, happy, and proud of who they are,” says Ravi.
“It happens naturally. You end up being Australian, whatever that means.”