My Syrian neighbour

Her room is just three up from mine. She has been here for about a year but we hardly spoke until recently, when she wished me a Merry Christmas:

My Muslim neighbour kindly wished me “Merry Christmas” last week, not inappropriately given my “real” Christmas was in Surry Hills last Friday. This morning the lovely folk at the Yum Yum Cafe gave me this. So Christmas, eh! And not too hot here in The Gong this year…

We spoke again at some length a few days ago. It turns out she is from Syria and spoke no English when she arrived in Australia less than two years ago. This is not my neighbour, but she is from Wollongong too:

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She is younger than my neighbour but they do have much in common. Her story was in the Illawarra Mercury last November.

Like most people, Dina Alawag is moved to tears by the thought of what happened in Paris over the weekend.

She’s crying for the victims, she says, and also for her religion – Islam – and the way it has been misused by evil people in the name of terror.

“I’m upset because they put my religion in a bad position, and I’m upset for the innocent people,” she said.

Ms Alawag arrived in Wollongong as a refugee from Iraq, via Syria, about three years ago, after fleeing her country when her home was destroyed in the early years of the second Iraq war.

Life hasn’t been easy for the 25-year-old: she hasn’t seen her father since her went missing in the war, and has been separated from two of her siblings who didn’t make the journey to Syria with her two younger sisters and mother.

But since arriving in Wollongong, her life has changed dramatically. She is in the last stages of an academic English course at TAFE and plans to go on to study social work, so that she can go on to help people, just as she’s been helped since arriving in Australia.

“I would like to help Australia because of the opportunities I have [and because] we find the support and find the help we need,” she said. “I wish I could tell people that we will never do something bad [just] because we are Muslim.”

My neighbour is also doing such a TAFE course, and her English now is pretty good. She had a master’s degree back in Syria and now teaches Arabic at a Saturday class here in Wollongong. She tells me she often cries when she sees the news from her birth country. She recalls a time not so long ago when in her part of Syria, between Lebanon and Turkey, everyone got on – Muslim, Christian, everyone. She herself is part Turkish.

I took to the maps after that conversation and was shocked how tenuous my grasp really was!

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There is a wonderful resource on Wikipedia: a continuously updated map in immense detail. Red dots are government, green are opposition, and black are ISIS. Here is a segment close to where my neighbour comes from.

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Back to last November’s story in The Illawarra Mercury:

Ms Alawag’s story is just one of the thousands of refugee experiences being lived out in Wollongong, which has accepted waves of displaced people over decades.

For instance, in 2014 alone, the city became home to 420 refugees from the Middle East, Myanmar, Sudan and Ethiopia.

On Monday, the Wollongong City Council announced the city would accept an increased number of refugees from Syria and Iraq in 2016. As many as 600 people could be resettled in the city through the Australian government’s temporarily-expanded resettlement program…

Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery called for the city’s residents to “not lose sight of compassion” in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris.

Speaking at a Wollongong City Council event to announce how the region will play its part as Australia brings in an extra 12,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria next year, he said it was important to also consider terror attacks in Lebanon, Turkey and other places around the world.

“We need to keep our perspective and Australia needs to continue to welcome those who are dislocated because of war, and more specifically, terrorism,” he said.

He said refugees resettled in Wollongong would be vetted by government officials, and noted many would have been personally affected by terrorism.

“These are people who have experienced terrorism and the people who have suffered as the result of wars we have been part of as well,” he said.

“So I want to emphasise that we are a city of compassion, a city that is geared up ready to receive refugees.”

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