The war came to Damascus when I was 14 years old. At first, it didn’t really affect our lives too much, but after a couple of years, it became very dangerous and scary. A lot of students lost their hands or feet in bomb attacks on our school, and some of them died. Sometimes my mum wouldn’t let me go to school. She would say, ‘I don’t care if you miss an exam and you can’t study at university. I just want you to keep all the parts of your body.’
Whenever there was bombing in our area, we would go down to the basement and she would be shaking and crying and worrying about us. Every year, she said she wanted to leave Syria. But my father was worried he wouldn’t be able to find work in another country to support us, and he always believed the situation would get better in Syria.
A few years later, some distant relatives offered to sponsor both my uncle’s family and ours to come to Australia as refugees, and so my father finally agreed to leave. By that time, I was 18, and I had a boyfriend who I was in love with, so leaving was very hard for me. We said goodbye not knowing if we were ever going to see each other again.
The first step to get our visa was to leave the country, and we decided to go to Lebanon. Life was not easy for us there. Nine of us had to live together in a 2 bedroom house, one family in each bedroom – we actually had to make an appointment to use the bathroom! And at first, as Syrians, we couldn’t find work and we were very worried about how we would survive there. But eventually we all found some kind of work, and the Lebanese people we met there became our good friends.
Just over a year later, our uncle and his family were approved to come to Australia, but our family heard nothing. At first, we weren’t worried, but weeks went by and we still didn’t hear anything, and we started to wonder. Then, 5 weeks later, we found out that we had been approved too. That night, we put on music and both families danced together in our little apartment! We were so happy.
In all that time, I hadn’t been able to see my boyfriend because as a single man he was viewed as a terrorist risk, and they kept turning him back at the border when he tried to come and see me. But just before we left, our grandparents came to see us and pretended he was their grandson, so he was finally able to get through. He spent 2 days with us, but with 15 people in the house at that time, it was hard for us to get some time together!
Life in Australia was very difficult for me at first. Everything was different to what we were used to, and our English was so bad that we couldn’t find work. But our relatives were so kind. We lived in their house for the first three months, and they taught us how to take a bus, where to go shopping, how to find our school – everything! I studied English and eventually I found work in a coffee shop and then at a Charcoal Chicken. Next, I worked with Settlement Services International for a month and they referred me to Australia for UNHCR, where I was lucky enough to get a part time job as an admin assistant, which I love. Now, I am enrolled in a Diploma of Business and I plan to transition into a Bachelor of Business after that, which was always my dream back in Syria.
Last year, I went back to Lebanon to see my boyfriend. We spent two lovely weeks together and in that time we got engaged. At the end, it was very hard for me to leave him. I was actually crying so much on the plane home that one of the flight attendants brought me some tissues and joked that if I didn’t stop crying, she wasn’t going to bring me any more food!
After I got back, I was able to apply for him to come to Australia as my fiancé, and 10 months later, I finally got an email from immigration on my phone. When it arrived, my hands started shaking so much I couldn’t actually read it, and I had to ask my mum to read it for me. She told me his application had been approved, and I just started crying with relief. I immediately called my boyfriend and he started crying too. One week later, he was here in Australia. I couldn’t wait to see him again. We actually got married 2 weeks ago!
When I first arrived, I always said I wanted to go back home, but now I say I will never leave Australia because I love it so much.
Here I can finally build the life I always dreamed of.
Joelle’s workplace, Australia for UNHCR, has just launched an emergency Winter Survival Fund. This appeal will help protect some of the millions of refugee and displaced people across the Middle East from the brutalities of winter. You can learn more, or make a donation here: http://bit.ly/2yWAJz3