POLITICS

After 30 Months, Syrian Refugee Family Get Australian Visas

'We lost our country, so we have to protect our new country, and we will.'

14/10/2016 4:37 PM AEDT | Updated 16/10/2016 7:30 PM AEDT
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Rabia and his family

After a two and a half years of wait, Rabia finally has some good news -- after being kidnapped, beaten and tortured by his own government, threatened by ISIS and chased by al-Qaeda, he and his family have been granted refugee visas. They are coming to Australia next week.

"We are so happy. It took years, but now we are happy. We have been going to cultural orientations, they have been telling us so many things about Australia. We want to go there," he tells The Huffington Post Australia from Beirut.

We first brought you Rabia's story more than a year ago. His family, from Latakia on Syria's north-west coast, has been in Lebanon since early 2014, after fleeing across the border from their home country. Rabia, his wife and their two young boys were forced to leave their home after being targeted by both sides in Syria's bloody civil war. Rabia is a member of the Alawite religious minority, historically persecuted by Sunni Muslims through Syria and the Middle East -- like the Sunni rebels fighting the Assad government. Rabia says he and his family do not practise the religion, but still came under attention from rebel groups. He also resisted government forces during the 2011 uprising -- meaning he became a target of the rebels for his religion, and a target of the government for his politics.

We aren't publishing his full name, and we've blurred the faces of his family, at his request; he says members of the Assad government are still looking for him and he fears for his family still in Syria.

"The area I was living, all of them support the government so they looked at me as a traitor. The government arrested me because I was with the people in the streets. They held us for three days. They hurt us, they beat us," he told us last September.

"When I came back to my business, some gunmen attacked my store. They smashed everything. They told me 'if you don't support the government, you will die some day'."

Reuters TV / Reuters
Scenes of wreckage in Aleppo, Syria

They fled Latakia in May 2013, escaping into the countryside, but the area was over-run by al-Qaeda and later Islamic State forces. Rabia said both groups were on the lookout for families like his.

Forced to move again, Rabia's family joined the one million Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon. In March 2014, Rabia's friends John and Mellissa Giancarlo -- Australians living in Switzerland -- helped him complete the "mountain" of paperwork for an Australian humanitarian visa. They did it themselves, after an immigration lawyer quoted them up to $37,000 in legal fees, and claimed they would have to pay "an immigration department fee in [excess] of $22,000."

He waited. And waited. And waited. On September 28, exactly 30 months to the day since Rabia's Australian refugee visa paperwork was submitted, he received a call.

"I had a call from the Australian embassy in Beirut, they said 'we are calling you to say that your visa application is approved to Australia'. I was excited, so excited about it. My wife didn't believe me. She said, 'are you joking?' I said no, no really, 'I can let you hear the call, I have the call recorded.' I played it for her," he tells HuffPost Australia.

"She heard the call, and there's a big smile on her face. My kids are also very happy. They want to go to Australia, they told me they are not happy in Lebanon."

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Rabia's wife and sons

Over the course of several days, more phone calls come in from international refugee organisations came in, drip-feeding more information. After waiting so long, the information and updates came incredibly quickly; they would be enrolling in cultural orientation programs in preparation for coming to Australia; they would be living in Melbourne; their flight to Australia was in just three weeks.

"On the 16th of October we will go to the airport, we have many procedures to do because it's our first flight after being refugees, so the IOM [International Organisation for Migration] want to make sure everything is OK at the airport," Rabia said.

The federal Department of Social Services is the arm of government that provides support to newly arrived refugees. A spokesperson said its Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) supplied refugees with temporary housing, rental assistance, registering with essential services like Medicare and Centrelink as well as schools and banks, and cultural orientation programs.

"The HSS program includes helping families with short-term accommodation while more permanent housing arrangements can be put in place, including assistance with accessing the private rental market or, where appropriate, to register for state and territory government public housing services. Humanitarian entrants are, like all Australian citizens, subject to state and territory government waiting periods for permanent public housing," a department spokesperson told HuffPost Australia.

"The HSS program provides support to clients, including children, on a needs basis. HSS providers undertake a needs assessment for single clients and family groups following their arrival in Australia to develop a package of services tailored to meet their needs. This includes a requirement for all children aged 5 years and under to be linked with an Early Childhood Clinic to provide developmental screening and immunisation."

"People arriving under the Australian Government's Humanitarian Program are eligible to access the same benefits and support provided to other residents and citizens of Australia, including services specifically designed for children."

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Rabis teaches his boys English at home

The children will be enrolled in school, the family will have access to Medicare and welfare, and will be helped to find jobs. Rabia particularly wants to find employment.

"I want to learn English more, I think my English is not so good, I want to do a course. Then I will find any job, I don't care what kind of job," he said.

"I want to do something. I don't want to live off the support of Centrelink. I will take the chance to settle in a new job, to live like any other Australian."

As for what the family is most looking forward to when they get to Australia?

"I promised to take my boys many places, they want to see the koala and kangaroos. They like to swim. We have to visit the beaches there, Australia has the most beautiful beaches," Rabia said.

"We are happy to have this opportunity to begin our new lives, to have a job, to live in a country that respects human rights, and maybe in a few years, to become a citizen in this country. We want to respect its law. We lost our country, so we have to protect our new country, and we will."

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